Universal school meal policies lead to higher participation rates, more challenges

Providing school meals to all students at no charge increased lunch participation in the five states that offer universal school meals, and raised breakfast participation rates in four of those during the 2022–2023 school year, according to a report released in February by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

The State of Healthy School Meals for All: California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont Lead the Way  features state-by-state participation data for September 2022 to May 2023, the first school year of these states’ Healthy School Meals for All policies.

Specifically, school lunch participation increased in all five states by a total of 233,656 students or 6 percent, compared to pre-pandemic operations, while participation in the School Breakfast Program saw modest growth of 129,264 more students in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont compared to pre-pandemic operations.

“During the pandemic, schools were able to offer meals to all students at no charge, but when that ended in the 2022–23 school year, many children lost access to the nutritious school meals they need to fuel their health and learning,” Luis Guardia, president of FRAC, said in a statement. “Fortunately, these five states understand the value of school meals and enacted Healthy School Meals for All policies. Now it’s time for Congress to act. Our lawmakers must do everything in their power to allow schools to implement Healthy School Meals for All.”

The Universal School Meals Program Act would allow all schools to offer meals to their students at no charge, and the School Meals Expansion Act, the No Hungry Kids in School Act and the Expanding Access to School Meals Act would allow more high-need schools to offer meals to all their students at no charge, Guardia continued.

Access to school meals plays a crucial role in reducing childhood hunger, supporting good nutrition and ensuring students are ready to focus and learn. Research has long linked participation in school meal programs to positive educational and health outcomes including improved academic achievement, attendance and behavior at school; decreased childhood food insecurity; consumption of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk; and fewer visits among youth to the school nurse.

The response to Healthy School Meals for All policies has been largely positive, the report notes, with state child nutrition agencies declaring benefits to providing school meals at no cost to all families, and public opinion polling shows broad support.

However, with more student participation comes a need for more resources and staffing within a school district’s nutrition services department, which has proven difficult to meet, according to school food service directors in California. A separate survey released in January by Food Insight Group, a food systems research organization, showed that 12 percent of California school nutrition jobs were vacant at the end of the 2022–23 school year. Additionally, 62 percent of the 190 food service directors surveyed expressed concern that they wouldn’t have enough staff to meet growing student participation in school meals. The study was conducted by California School Nutrition Association and Chef Ann Foundation in partnership with Food Insight Group.

“At their core, persistent staffing issues prevent School Food Authorities from providing the quality of meals that they’re striving for. Respondents spoke of the impact of these issues not only on the quality of meals they serve, but also on student meal participation and, therefore, their bottom line,” the survey states. “Despite these challenges, food service directors spoke of a vision for school meals that mirrors state and federal investments. They describe a desire to meet the growing demand for school meals, while investing in their workforce, upgrading their kitchen facilities, procuring California-grown and produced foods, and cooking more food from scratch in-house.”