- Author: Katherine Lanca
- Editor: Danielle L. Lee
- Editor: Lorrene Ritchie
- Editor: Wendi Gosliner
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food and nutrition challenges. Many families initially lost access to meals offered by school and childcare facilities, experienced unemployment or work reductions, and faced increasing prices for food and other necessities. National and state policies and programs provided food and cash assistance to mitigate impacts on food security. Researchers at the Nutrition Policy Institute, a research center of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, evaluated safety-net policies implemented during the pandemic to better support families with low incomes in the U.S.
Benefits of universal school meals
The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program meet the nutritional needs of approximately 30 million K-12 students in America each day. Typically, students from families meeting income eligibility criteria receive school meals for free or a reduced price, while others pay full price.
NPI researchers Wendi Gosliner, project scientist, and Lorrene Ritchie, director and UC Cooperative Extension specialist, are co-leading studies of school meals in California in collaboration with researchers from the NOURISH Lab for Health Inclusion Research and Practice, who study school meals in Maine and other states.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress funded school meals for all students at no charge, in order to address the dramatic increase in food insecurity among families with children after schools shut down in March 2020. This federal provision allowing for meals to be free for all students ended after the 2021-2022 school year, but some states elected to continue providing universal school meals with state funding, in recognition of the importance of these meals for student health and academic success.
California was the first state to adopt a statewide Universal Meals Program starting in the 2022-23 school year. To support the program's development, $650 million were invested to help schools improve kitchen infrastructure and provide staff training and technical assistance. Investments include Farm to School programs and other mechanisms to help update and improve school meals. Maine and several other states also have adopted universal school meals at least through the 2022-23 school year.
“States often act as incubators – things that work well in states sometimes get translated into federal policy,” Gosliner said. Identifying the success of the programs – and their challenges – can lead to improvements and help inform advocates and policymakers considering universal school meals policies at the state and national level.
Two of the team's research studies in California and Maine documented the benefits and challenges of universal school meals, as reported by school food authorities. Among 581 school food-service leaders in California who responded to the survey, nearly half (45.7%) reported reductions in student stigma as a result of providing free school meals to all students. Among 43 respondents in Maine, over half (51%) reported lessened stigma related to school meals being free for all. In both studies, nearly three-quarters of respondents reported increases in student meal participation. These and other data suggest that universal school meals are meeting their aim, to increase student participation while providing nutritionally balanced meals.
But when the child leaves campus, the responsibility to put a nutritious meal on the table falls on the caregiver.
“Universal school meals provide food and can ease families' budgets, but for too many families, wages as well as time and other resources are not adequate for access to and consumption of enough healthy foods and beverages,” Gosliner noted.
That is when other public programs are helpful, for example the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC.
Many eligible families do not claim Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit is a national program designed to lift families out of poverty. The supplemental income can contribute up to nearly $7,000 per year for a family. Despite the EITC's known ability to improve participants' health, research shows that many EITC-eligible households in California and across the nation don't receive the benefits for which they are eligible, leaving $2 billion unclaimed in California in 2018 alone.
Gosliner led a study along with Lia Fernald from UC Berkeley and Rita Hamad from UC San Francisco to document levels of awareness, barriers to uptake, and benefits of participation in the EITC. Their recent publication reported that among 411 EITC-eligible California female caregivers, those who were younger, spoke languages other than English, and had less awareness of the EITC were less likely to receive the tax credit.
Developing a user-friendly system for providing safety-net support and, in the meantime, providing information and support to help more EITC-eligible families receive these benefits are suggested to help alleviate financial stressors. In the long term, these strategies may reduce poverty and improve the health of children.
Increasing WIC Cash Value Benefit a boon to health
In addition to universal school meals and EITC, families with low income may be eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. The program supports women and children up to 5 years old through nutrition education, nutritious foods and access to other health and social services.
One component of the WIC food packages, the Cash Value Benefit, provides participants a fixed dollar amount to supplement their family's diet with fruits and vegetables. During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased this benefit from $9 to $35 per month, which was later revised to $24 per month per child in October 2021.
Ritchie contributed to a growing body of evidence on the importance and multidimensional benefits of the WIC Cash Value Benefit increase.
“Nine dollars buys only a quarter of what a child is recommended to eat every day,” Ritchie said. “The increase in Cash Value Benefit during the pandemic was an ideal natural experiment to investigate its impact.”
In collaboration with Shannon Whaley and her team at the Public Health Foundation Enterprises-WIC, NPI launched a longitudinal cohort study of nearly 2,000 California WIC participants. They found that the increased Cash Value Benefit improved WIC participant satisfaction with the program and allowed families to purchase greater quantities and varieties of fruits and vegetables.
“The increased Cash Value Benefit enabled WIC families to expose young children to new fruits and vegetables. Early exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables is critical to establishing lifelong healthy habits,” said Ritchie.
The researchers found that the benefit increase also reduced food insecurity. It is hoped that the increase in program satisfaction translates into more eligible families enrolling and continuing to receive WIC. In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed making the increased Cash Value Benefit a permanent part of WIC.
Knowing the proven benefits of the WIC program, Ritchie and colleagues from the National WIC Association, and Loan Kim at Pepperdine University, also engaged with WIC participants in other states.
In 2021, all state WIC agencies were invited to participate in a WIC satisfaction survey. Of the 12 WIC state agencies that opted to participate, Connecticut, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico added questions on the survey to understand how the increased Cash Value Benefit impacted children's dietary intake.
The study showed consumption of fruits and vegetables by children on WIC increased by one-third cup per day on average, which is sizable when considering the impact across the WIC population.
NPI research on universal school meals, the EITC and WIC constitute a small part of a more comprehensive approach to make healthy food more accessible, affordable, equitable and sustainable for all. The NPI provides resources such as policy briefs, peer-reviewed publications and technical assistance on several research areas such as safe drinking water, childcare and education. To learn more, please visit the Nutrition Policy Institute website.
- Author: Shannon Klisch
- Author: Katherine E Soule
School food service is a multibillion dollar industry that impacts the lives of over 30 million (mostly) low-income students. Every school day and, with increasing frequency, during summer weekdays as well, this industry provides two-thirds of students' meals (breakfast and lunch), as well as snacks, contributing a large portion of the nutrients youth consume throughout their childhoods. To qualify for a free school lunch, a family of three must make less than $26,208 in 2016-17.
School food service directors have a huge charge on their hands: feed kids, every day, with a lot of requirements, for very little money. The current reimbursement rate for free meals provided to students in California is $3.31, which is required to include at least ½ cup of fruit or vegetables, and the choice to select a whole grain food, a protein food, and low-fat or non-fat milk. Elementary school kids from higher-income homes pay around $3 for the same meals.
So, when a canned mandarin from China is more economical than a local pixie tangerine, how does this impact food service directors' decisions to make sustainable and healthy food selections?
According to the San Luis Coastal Unified food service director, Erin Primer, food service directors have a lot of power to make healthy (or not so healthy) selections. Primer is a school food champion, who some have said is “murdering the lunch lady game.” Primer's first venture into institutional food service was in the private industry and catering. She learned how to get things done, how to be competitive and, ultimately, how to serve a lot of food that people want to eat.
Primer credits this background with enabling her to see things more creatively.
“Because of my background with catering, I was never limited by what school food says we can't do," Primer said. "I never let that burden me. When I came to school food, I loved the freedom to problem solve and connect all the dots with all the requirements, and then just feeding the kids.”
How do you feed kids healthy food while considering the broader impact of food purchasing decisions? Primer says it comes down to participation, it is a game of numbers. How many students and families will choose to eat a school meal on any given day? For Primer, that's about 3,000 lunches and 2,000 breakfasts every day - a number she would like to see grow.
What are some strategies to increase participation so more kids are eating school lunch? To Primer, and many food service directors that are rising to the challenge of feeding our next generation, it's about serving good food. It is easy to get stuck in the weeds of the regulatory environment of school food; and, while following the guidelines is incredibly important, it is also important to think about the food you are serving. Primer says she likes to think about the whole plate and what actually makes sense to serve to kids. You have to keep going back to asking yourself: “Will kids eat it?” and “Does it make sense?”
“We started with asking ourselves, does it taste good? Is it good quality? Is it sending the message we want to send? And if it's not, let's not do it, Primer said.
One of the biggest changes Primer has made to her menus is first, getting rid of the junk. In the world of school food, you can find chocolate doughnuts and cinnamon-sugar cereals that meet USDA regulations for the school meal program. In many cases, food processing companies have reformulated popular food items specifically to meet requirements. By adding in whole grains, or reducing the sugar, fat or sodium content in a product, they can be sold at school even if you could never find that same version of the product in the store. When students see these products at school it can send them mixed messages about what should be included as a regular part of a healthy diet.
The next change she made and continues to make includes increasing the purchase of local foods and removing items that can't be obtained locally. She is able to serve local, grass fed beef on the menu in a “blended burger” which includes mushrooms to make it larger, tastier and economically feasible. She also became one of the first school food service directors to use local grains by featuring emmer farro from a farmer that is less than 15 miles from her office. In addition, she has made some waves by replacing bananas on her menu with other local fruits, like kiwi.
Living on the central coast of California, there is an abundance of local foods available most months of the year. However, “local” does not need to be barrier for food service directors. Defining what is “local” or “regional” is up to each district or institution, who should take into consideration the surrounding agricultural landscape, seasons, and what foods are reliably available.
The last, but really important, step that Primer is working on is telling her story. Working with partners in creative ways, Primer is working hard to sell school food to all families in her district, regardless of their incomes. Her goal is to make meals that all kids want to eat and parents want to buy. She has her delivery trucks wrapped in pictures promoting the local foods they serve each day and she talks to local stakeholders, teachers, parents and school board members at every opportunity.
What are we feeding our kids? Where did it come from? How do our purchasing decisions impact our world?
These are the questions being tackled by school and institutional food service directors every day, whether they are aware of it or not. How they choose to answer those questions will have broad reaching impacts on our communities and future generations.
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
The youngsters are required to take at least a half-cup serving of fresh fruits or vegetables as part of a healthful meal to meet national nutrition standards, but I noticed they were voluntarily eating the fresh leafy greens and orange slices.
The children had selected the food themselves from a new serving line, which was made possible by a grant from the USDA aimed at encouraging children to eat healthier school lunches. U.S. Department of Agriculture has been providing a new round of grants since 2013 to upgrade kitchen and cafeteria equipment. Ygnacio Valley Elementary School is in Mount Diablo Unified School District, which received a USDA grant.
About one-third of children in California are overweight or obese, which is associated with serious health risks.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, 93 percent of school districts in California, and 88 percent nationwide, need at least one piece of equipment to better serve students nutritious foods.
Kenneth Hecht, director of policy for the Nutrition Policy Institute organized the Sept. 3 visit to the Mount Diablo Unified School District for Congressman Mark DeSaulnier and USDA executives to see the improvements.
The new serving line allows for food to be displayed so the children can select their own food, whereas before, each tray was filled by a server and handed to the students.
“We've seen that when the children select their own food, less food gets thrown away,” said Fisher.
“The examples we are seeing at Mount Diablo Unified School District are perfect illustrations of what these USDA grants can do, from the procurement of food to serving healthy meals to children,” said Hecht.
Congressman DeSaulnier, who ate lunch with the students, is sponsoring the School Food Modernization Act (HR 3316) to continue and strengthen the USDA grants program.
Another piece of federal legislation aimed at improving child nutrition is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which includes farm to school support and expires on Sept. 30, 2015.
“This fall is a pivotal time for the future of Farm to School programs across the country,” said Gail Feenstra, deputy director of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) in the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Riverside schools have transitioned from heating prepackaged meals to buying local produce and preparing fresh food on-site.
According to Kirsten Roloson, director of Nutrition Services, and Adleit Asi, operations manager, Riverside Unified now buys $400,000 worth of produce from local farmers. One farmer, Bob Knight, who supplies oranges and other produce to Riverside Unified, said he's making five to seven times more money selling to schools than he did before.
“Farm-to-school programs increase access to fresh, healthy produce among school children while also supporting local farms,” said Feenstra. In California, she noted that 2,626 schools participate in farm-to-school programs, serving 1.8 million students and buying more than $51 million in produce from local California farmers.
Feenstra will be leading a similar farm-to-school tour for policymakers in Sacramento on Sept. 29.
"With new equipment and fresh produce, schools can prepare healthy and more appealing school meals that may be the most nutritious meal a child receives that day," Hecht said.
Whether children eat with forks or fingers, the nutritional quality of the food they eat can affect their lives, long term.
The University of California Global Food Initiative aims to put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. By building on existing efforts and creating new collaborations among UC's 10 campuses, affiliated national laboratories and the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the initiative will develop and export solutions for food security, health and sustainability throughout California, the United States and the world.
- Author: Shannon Klisch
- Contributor: Lisa Paniagua
- Contributor: Melissa LaFreniere
Which end of an asparagus do you eat? I am not going to eat that, it's too spicy! Pink milk cartons (non-fat) are only for girls.
The collaboration included three components: monthly, school-wide seasonal produce tastings facilitated by UC CalFresh and supported by the school district; Smarter Lunchroom Movement strategies implemented by district food service staff with support from UC CalFresh; and classroom nutrition education with curricula provided by UC CalFresh and implemented by participating classroom teachers.
The monthly produce tastings were a coordinated effort between the UC CalFresh Nutrition Educators, student leaders from the Student Nutrition Advisory Council, and Cafeteria staff. The first goal was to familiarize the students in the five elementary schools with local, seasonal vegetables – and eventually get them on the school menu and on students' plates. During the months of March, April and May of 2015 more than 4,000 students at five participating schools
Student leaders participated in all aspects of the monthly tastings, from advising on what produce items to sample, to making signs advertising the featured produce, to handing out the samples to their peers. The voting results were overwhelmingly positive with a majority of students in favor of putting Brussels sprouts, asparagus and yellow bell peppers on the school menu. As a result of these findings, and the students' enthusiasm for trying new things, food service staff are working on incorporating a Brussels sprouts salad into their regular menu.
The second component included Smarter Lunchroom Movement (SLM) strategies from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics. These strategies were introduced at a cafeteria manager training facilitated by UC CalFresh. At the training, district staff were introduced to SLM concepts and encouraged to identify two changes they wanted to implement in their
Students, at first surprised seeing adults eating school meals, welcomed the nutrition educators to their tables. Staff took the opportunity to talk to the students about their food, model healthy food habits and dispel myths about their food. Myths included things like pink milk cartons (non-fat) were only for girls and school lunches are unhealthy. By the end of the school year, all participating schools had improved their scores on the Smarter Lunchroom Self-Assessment Scorecard and plans are currently being developed to provide districtwide cafeteria branding.
The third component was the in-class curricula. Classroom curricula has been the primary focus of the UC CalFresh program for many years. UC CalFresh provides “No-Prep Nutrition Education Kits” and in class food demonstrations to enrolled teachers (Educator Extenders). These Educator Extenders teach evidence-based nutrition education lessons based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This year, as the collaboration with the school cafeteria developed, UC CalFresh staff rolled out the concept of Harvest of the Month mini kits and farm stands to coincide with the produce item being featured in the monthly cafeteria tastings. Educator Extenders had the
This collaborative effort has brought about many opportunities to educate, expose and inform students and staff about local produce and how delicious it can be in their school lunches. Students who once thought that sweet yellow, green and red bell peppers were too spicy had the opportunity to sample them and see for themselves. Students who did not know which end to eat an asparagus from got to sample it and then vote on whether or not they wanted to try it again. Food service staff also got to see how excited their students were to sample new items, including Brussels sprouts, and have a voice in their school menu.
For more pictures, visit the UC CalFresh Facebook page.
An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Ohmart also displayed a food waste composter and showed how the container, along with a large population of red worms, break the food waste down into rich, garden-ready compost.
The event featured Billy Reid, the director of nutrition services at Salida Union School District. The school is already providing students food delivered by San Joaquin Valley farmers.
"We have (employees) standing at the end of the lunch line, and all they do is cut fruit," Reid said. "The kids come through and grab whatever the fruit is."
Reid has been widely recognized for his work on school food, including a 2011 award presented by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House. To source high-quality food, Reid uses the online service Ag Link, which matches farmers with schools seeking local food.
One time, Reid bought cantaloupes for 50 cents apiece via Ag Link, Holland reported.
"The day before I served them, they were still in the field," he said. "This is amazing stuff."