During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture temporarily offered free school meals every school day to all students at no charge, but this federal provision ended in June 2022. As a result, California became the first state to expand the universal meals program beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. Other states considering expansion of free school meals may be following current research on the impact of free school meals in California. The New York Times invited Monica Zuercher, a project scientist with the Nutrition Policy Institute, to share her knowledge of free school meals. Zuercher was featured in The New York Times for Kids article titled ‘What if every kid got a free lunch?' by Katherine Cusumano in which she spoke to research-proven benefits of free school meals, particularly better attendance rates and improved health outcomes. Research on states that operate a free school meal program illustrate benefits and feasibility of free school meals programs for other states to follow. The New York Times for Kids article ‘What if every kid got a free lunch?' was published in print on January 29, 2023. The Nutrition Policy Institute documents further resources, research, and publications on School Meals for All on the Nutrition Policy Institute website Resources tab.
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.
Like California, Maine is providing Universal School Meals statewide for the 2022-2023 school year. The Nutrition Policy Institute is collaborating with a national research team to understand the opportunities and challenges of providing universal school meals during the federally-funded COVID-19 implementation of free school meals in Maine to inform continuation of universal school meals beyond the federally supported program. During spring of 2022, a total of 43 school food authorities (SFA) in Maine completed an online survey about the challenges and benefits of school food service during the COVID-19 federally funded universal meals program as well as their hopes and concerns about continuing to implement universal school meals. SFAs reported benefits of USM such as increased school meal participation, reductions in perceived stigma of eating school meals, and the new absence of unpaid meal charges. Notable challenges reported during the COVID-19 pandemic were related to resources such as time, personnel, and financial support to meet the increased number of student school meal participation. Rural schools reported greater challenges than urban schools. The study highlights the role of public policy at local, state, and federal levels to support schools as they work to promote nutrition equity in the lunchroom. Results were published online the the journal Nutrients as part of their special issue on School Meals and Children's Dietary Behaviour. The study was conducted by lead author Juliana Cohen and Deborah Olarte of the Center for Health Inclusion, Research and Practice, Christina Hecht, Ken Hecht, Monica Zuercher, Wendi Gosliner, and Lorrene Ritchie from the Nutrition Policy Institute, Michele Polacsek of the University of New England, Center for Excellence in Public Health, Margaret Read of Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry, Anisha Patel of Stanford University Division of General Pediatrics, Marleke Schwartz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and Lindsey Turner of the College of Education, Boise State University. The study was funded by Share Our Strength and Full Plates Full Potential.
“How do we expect children to learn at school if they are hungry?” says Mónica Zuercher, of the Nutrition Policy Institute. The Los Angeles Times featured Zuercher, a nutritional epidemiologist, in a story about the permanent implementation of the Universal School Meals Program in California starting in the 2022-2023 school year. Zuercher identified the school cafeteria as a place to increase nutritional security. “Nutritional standards are in place at the national level, establishing the nutritional qualities that school meals need to have. So, it is important to highlight that not only two free meals are being offered in schools, but it's also two healthy meals,” she says. The Universal School Meal Program, initially a federal COVID-19 emergency measure, is now being permanently implemented in California and several other states. Zuercher and other researchers at the Nutrition Policy Institute will continue to evaluate the universal school meals program to inform and improve implementation. “It is a very exciting study because it examines multiple stages of universal school meals, from it's beginnings as a measure generated by COVID-19, to the challenge that it presents schools to have a large increase in the number of students participating in the program,” explained Zuercher. Preliminary findings from this research include reports from food service directors who say providing meals to all students free of charge has led to an increase in student participation, reductions in school meal debt and stigma related to meal participation. The original Los Angeles Times article “Big logistical challenge involves free food in schools. How to solve it?” was published on September 15, 2022 in Spanish. Follow updates related to this project on NPI's School Meals for All webpage.
California school food service professionals report that federal funding of universal school meals (USM) for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic increased access to healthy foods by K-12 students. Professionals cited increased student meal participation, fewer unpaid meal charges, and reduced student stigma as a result of providing meals free of charge to all students. A number of challenges were also experienced by many school districts, namely supply chain disruptions and staffing shortages related to the pandemic. Other challenges were inadequate food service equipment, and issues with food and packaging waste. Fortunately, the state has recently expanded resources to overcome such challenges. The study, funded by California General Fund SB 170, was conducted by Monica Zuercher, Christina Hecht, Ken Hecht, Lorrene Ritchie, and Wendi Gosliner of the Nutrition Policy Institute, and Juliana Cohen of the Center for Health Inclusion, Research, and Practice & Department of Public Health and Nutrition and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Department of Nutrition. The online survey was completed by 581 California food service professionals in early 2022. The complete publication is available online in the Nutrients journal.