- 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
In the morning you hurry to put your clothes on, brush your hair, brush your teeth and get everything in your school bag for the day. Dad needs to drop you off at school at 7:30 a.m. so he can get to work on time. You grab a bag of chips as you run out the door, rubbing your eyes and looking to make sure you didn't put your shirt on backwards again.
Somewhere around 10:00 a.m. your tummy starts to growl. You feel your mouth start to water a little and your eyes droop. Looking at the clock you count the minutes until lunch. At 11:25 , one of your classmate's parents comes in with a tray of cupcakes to celebrate her birthday! Your stomach jumps at the sight of pink butter cream frosting piled high on the little cakes. Your teacher hands one to each student in the class and you savor every delicious bite.
Fifteen minutes later the lunch bell rings. Your teacher walks everyone over to the cafeteria and you get in line for school lunch. You feel embarrassed to eat school lunch and since you ate that cupcake you're not really hungry anyway. You plop a few things on your plate making a face. Sitting down you pick at the food until the custodian says you can get up and go play. You dump your tray with most of the food still on it and run outside chasing your friends onto the blacktop.
Back in class you feel energized after your game of handball. Your face is red and you're a little sweaty from all the running around. Your teacher announces that your group won the weekly contest and each of you will get to pick from the candy bag. That sounds great to you because you are starting to get hungry again. You put a few pieces of candy in your mouth. You get back to work on your math problem but it's the afternoon and you always have trouble concentrating in the afternoon…
Maggie is just one of more than 30 million children in the U.S. who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals through the USDA school meal program. Students like Maggie may rely on food at school for up to 50 percent of their daily calories and school meals represent a larger portion of the school-day caloric and nutrient intake for food insecure children. In addition, research shows that income level, educational attainment and family composition impact diet quality and physical activity.
The national school lunch program, while not perfect, is intended to ensure students like Maggie are offered a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole-grain rich foods every day. There are limits to the amount of sodium, saturated fat, trans-fat and calories that are offered as part of a school meal. Studies have shown that child nutrition programs improve diet quality and academic performance for children in low-income and food-insecure households.
When we offer our children and students food with little to no nutritional quality for a reward and cupcakes to celebrate a birthday, we are impacting their overall dietary quality for the day. For Maggie, the problem is compounded by the fact that she does not have access to a varied and nutritious diet at home. She has nothing to fall back on when she doesn't get a nutritious meal at school and she fills up on empty calories instead. Childhood is an important time when people develop lifelong eating and physical activity patterns.
So when I am faced with the dilemma, once again, of speaking up and being the cupcake police or staying silent and going along with treats at school, I think of Maggie.
What can you do to create healthier schools for all children:
- Look up your School Wellness Policy. Every school that participates in the School Meal Program has one. However, many times they were written and never revisited. Check your district web page or go to the Dairy Council finder. School Wellness Policies outline what is and is not allowed to be offered in the classroom or fundraisers during school.
- Offer non-food rewards for positive behaviors: Extra physical activity time or recess, the opportunity to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the teacher, special privileges like “line leader” for the day, or the opportunity to go out to the garden. For more healthy reward ideas visit Healthy Food Choices in Schools.
- Celebrations that reinforce health: Include physical activity like a dance party in your celebration (see GoNoodle for all kinds of fun activities and brain breaks), ask parents to bring in a donated book for the class instead of cupcakes (see Books for Birthdays), if you are going to have food, make sure non-nutritious items are limited to one per student.
- Eat lunch with your student(s): If you're a parent, check-in with your school. Many schools allow parents to eat lunch with their children if notified in advance. If you're a teacher, eating with your students is a great way to teach and model healthy eating behaviors. Interested in learning more about the importance of school meals? Find out here.
- Is the school offering a variety of fruits and vegetables? Can the students all see the food and serve it safely? Are any local foods available? If not, set a meeting with the Food Service staff to discuss your ideas and see how you can help.
- Author: Liz Sizensky
Lunches served in the National School Lunch Program have higher nutritional quality than lunches brought from home, according to the largest comparison study conducted to date.
Published in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the study, conducted by researchers at UC's Nutrition Policy Institute, involved nearly 4,000 elementary school students in Southern California.
“This rigorous study confirms what we have long known: The school lunch program, which has served the country's students since 1946, makes an invaluable contribution to their nutritional well-being, their health and their academic performance," said Lorrene Ritchie, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Policy Institute and a senior author of this study. "And thanks to the recent, improved nutrition standards, it will only provide stronger, more essential support for our children's success.”
School lunch consumption was associated with higher overall diet quality. School lunch eaters also consumed diets that were higher in dairy-rich foods, lower in empty calories from solid fats and added sugars, and lower in refined grains than students who ate lunches from home.
Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program is a federal nutrition assistance program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches in over 100,000 K-12 schools throughout the United States. School lunches are required to meet certain nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. New requirements increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce sodium and fat in school lunches. Guidelines on calorie limits are set to ensure age-appropriate sized meals for grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.
During the 2014-15 school year, the program served lunches to about 30.5 million children each school day. More than 21.5 million of these students qualified for free or reduced-price service. Given the program's broad reach and its targeting of low-income children, the nutritional improvements shown in this study are of considerable benefit to needy students for whom school lunch may represent roughly one-third of their daily calories.
Since the study was conducted, new and more rigorous nutritional standards have been implemented, thus increasing the likelihood that school lunches are contributing to healthy overall diets – and reversing the extremely worrisome obesity epidemic. Currently as many as one-third of U.S. youth are obese or overweight.
- Author: Melissa Tamargo
During summer break, healthy food and fitness often take a long vacation. For many, the vacation is ending and it's time to do some homework. Study these back-to-school tips for the start to a healthy school year. If you follow a balanced diet and stay physically active, there's no way you can't get an 'A' in back-to-school nutrition!
- Don't skip breakfast! Studies show children who eat breakfast perform better in school.
- If you pack a homemade lunch for your children, include a good balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat free dairy products, and lean meats and proteins.
- Provide new options! Pack exotic fruits like kiwi or allow your child to pick a fun new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store. They are more likely to eat their lunch if they helped prepare it.
- Reinforce cleanliness and remind your children to wash their hands before they eat or pack a moist towelette or hand sanitizer in their lunchbox.
- Physical activity and exercise are important and help improve a child's health. Children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day, and adults need to be active for at least 30 minutes a day. Make exercise a family affair and get the physical activity everyone needs! Go for a weekend hike, walk the dog together, or ride your bikes after dinner.
Try this quick and easy recipe for your child's lunch or mix it up and substitute a variety of their favorite vegetables instead.
- 1 cup baby spinach
- 4 ounces cooked skinless, boneless chicken
- 1/2 cup sliced red bell pepper
- 2 tablespoons low-fat Italian vinaigrette
- 1 (6-inch) whole-grain pita, cut in half
- Combine spinach, chicken, bell pepper, and vinaigrette in a bowl; lightly toss and mix ingredients.
- Cut the pita pieces in half.
- Using a spoon, fill each pita half with the tossed ingredients.
- Once assembled, lay them flat and pack them up for your child to enjoy during lunch.
Recipe source: http://www.health.com/health/recipe/0,,10000001983452,00.html
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
UC Davis is riding high on a swell of interest in changing the way American children eat. First lady Michelle Obama, celebrity chef Alice Waters and TV personality Jamie Oliver are behind the spiking popularity of a movement that has been quietly building for years in places like UC Davis, which founded the Davis Farm to School Connection in 2000.
Last week, school nutritionists, farmers and others in the agriculture industry - including UC Cooperative Extension - gathered for a workshop aimed at making farm-to-school a reality in Yuba County, according to an article in yesterday's Appeal-Democrat.
The story centered on UC Davis student Julia Van Soelen Kim, who decided to make the farm-to-school food movement the topic of her master's degree thesis. She helped coordinate last Thursday's workshop, and plans to serve as a farm-to-school researcher.
A school nutrition services director, Mary Driscoll, of the Marysville school district, raised a common concern about the movement at the workshop.
"It's a little more costly, but we are willing to pay that if we can stay within our budget," Driscoll was quoted. And, she said, it has to be consistent.
Van Soelen Kim acknowledged that farm-to-school food is "easier said than done," noting that successful long-term implementation requires buy-in from school administrators, local government officials and farmers.
But the benefits are many. Such programs improve children's health, teach kids where their food comes from and support the local economy, the article said. They also reduce the resources used to process, package and transport food.