Good nutrition, and improved health, attendance, academics, and school climate are some of the benefits when schools offer meals at no charge to all students. California and Maine, followed by six other states, have already enacted legislation to provide daily meals at school to all K-12 public school students, at no charge regardless of family income level. According to tracking by the Food Research and Action Center, over half of the remaining states are working to pass School Meals for All legislation. Additionally, a bill has been offered at the federal level. Researchers at the Nutrition Policy Institute, Arizona State University, the University of Connecticut, Boise State University and Merrimack College developed a summary of the evidence on the benefits of universal school meal programs. The researchers who developed the synopsis work collaboratively on evaluations of new state School Meals for All programs.
According to a study conducted by the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, parents of K-12 students in California overwhelmingly value the benefits of school meals, such as saving families money and time, reducing family stress, and improving academic performance. Researchers interviewed a representative sample of 1,110 California parents of children in public or charter schools, and 82% said school meals helped them save money, while 80% said it helped them save time. However, the interviews also revealed some of the challenges faced by school meal programs, including repetitive menus and students not liking what was served. Parents suggested simplifying the meal application process and providing information in written formats to help them overcome some barriers to participation. Study findings are presented in a research brief, developed by NPI as part of their formative evaluation of California's Universal School Meals. California's new program provides free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students and is a model for other states. This study aims to continue to inform and help optimize the program.
Over 13 million Californians participate in safety net programs that provide resources including health insurance, food assistance, and tax credits. The Assessing California Communities' Experiences with Safety Net Supports Survey (ACCESS) is an ongoing study that aims to understand how to improve the delivery of social safety net programs and increase participation of eligible California families. A new ACCESS research brief revealed gaps in the way these support programs met the needs of California households with young children during the COVID pandemic. The research team conducted almost 500 interviews with California households with young children. They found that safety net supports were helpful but insufficient; child care, housing, and mental health supports were resources that families felt were lacking in the current safety net system. Recommendations included developing a more comprehensive and better integrated safety net system that includes affordable child care, adequate income, additional housing support, and mental health care. This research both informs future emergency preparedness and ongoing conversations to improve the existing safety net. The ACCESS research team is led by Lia Fernald from UC Berkeley, Wendi Gosliner from the Nutrition Policy Institute, and Rita Hamad from UC San Francisco. This work was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from the Tipping Point Foundation and the UC Berkeley Population Center.
A new research brief developed by the Nutrition Policy Institute details findings from an evaluation of the California Nutrition Incentive Program, a program that provides CalFresh shoppers with a dollar-for-dollar match when purchasing California-grown produce at participating farmers markets and other retail outlets. In this evaluation, NPI researchers conducted surveys and interviews with a convenience sample of CalFresh shoppers and food store managers. Overall, CalFresh shoppers reported overwhelmingly positive experiences using CNIP and store managers also found the program to be beneficial. While the results showed that CNIP utilization did not have statistically significant impacts on quantitative measures of shoppers' produce intake or food security, shoppers did report that CNIP influenced the kinds of fruits and vegetables they bought and also attributed being able to buy more fruits and vegetables to this program. CalFresh shoppers wanted CNIP to continue and supported it expanding to other retail outlets.
A new research brief developed by the Nutrition Policy Institute provides findings about California K-12 students' time to eat school meals. During the 2021-22 school year, the final year of meals being free of charge for all students as part of the federal government's COVID-19 pandemic response, NPI researchers surveyed and interviewed California school food service directors and parents of students, and conducted focus groups with students. Responses showed that adequate time for students to sit and eat school meals is a concern among all three groups. Food service directors and students made suggestions for improvement including adding more lunch periods and increasing cafeteria staffing; both groups also suggested extending the lunch period. The findings on time to eat are one of many analyses being undertaken in NPI's evaluation of California's School Meals for All program. During school year 2022-23, NPI researchers along with national colleagues are collecting data again from these same stakeholders in school nutrition programs in California and 9 other states.