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California Looks to Require Meals in Charters for Needy Students

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California charter schools currently do not have to provide free or reduced-price lunches to disadvantaged students. But some lawmakers are seeking to change that.

Legislation moving through the California State Capitol would subject charters to the same requirements that traditional public schools currently face for providing at least one "nutritionally adequate" meal per day.

The state authorizes traditional public schools to provide meals with funds coming to them through a variety of federal or state programs, the legislation explains. Those include the federal School Breakfast Program, the federal National School Lunch Program, and the state's meal program. Those meals can also be offered at the expense of school districts or county office of education.

The measure to increase the requirements on charters is sponsored by state Rep. Mike Eng, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area.

"As the number of charter schools continues to grow across California, so do the number of low-income charter school pupils who may not have access to the free or reduced-price meals that they are eligible for and offered in a traditional public school," the legislation states. "School meals play an essential role in supporting the academic achievement and overall well-being of all pupils, particularly low-income pupils who may not have access to a nutritionally adequate
meal otherwise."

The California Charter Schools Association opposes the bill. Charters face serious obstacles in providing meal programs, a spokeswoman for the association, Vicky Waters, said in an e-mail, including cost and not having adequate facilities to provide those services.

Many districts do not provide charters with the level of facilities they're supposed to under state law, the association contends. (Districts' obligations to charters have emerged as a major source of contention in California.) As a result, Waters said, many charters do not have kitchens, and do not have the resources to either install a commercial-grade kitchen or to move into a facility that has one.

The legislation, she said, wrongly assumes "that some charter schools do not provide a meal to low-income children simply because they choose not to."

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