The White House recently announced a plan to work with Congress this year to expand access to free school meals for 9 million more students — part of a larger step toward enabling “universal meals” in schools across the country. This effort follows in the footsteps of California, the first state in the country to pass legislation providing that all students, regardless of family income, will be offered two free meals a day while at school.
The move toward universal meals is a critical step in advancing equity — 1 in 6 kids lack consistent meals in their day. California’s law is also a good education policy: Research shows that hunger limits a child’s ability to focus on instruction and can contribute to behavior and discipline issues in the classroom. Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho put it best: It’s “a human right to have your child fed every single day, no questions asked.”
However, national research and my own work with school nutrition directors across the country demonstrate that simply offering free meals isn’t enough. While promising evidence suggests that serving universal meals does reduce stigma and increases participation, we know that it takes more than offering the meals to ensure all students can benefit.
At a moment when school nutrition directors are facing unprecedented challenges — rising food costs, widespread staff shortages, supply chain uncertainty — here are five practical things schools can do this fall to ensure they can deliver on the promise of providing nutritious, fulfilling meals to all California students:
Build a menu that’s durable and relevant. If we want kids to take advantage of free breakfast and lunch, it needs to be the food they want to eat. My organization partners with districts to beta-test meals with kids before we introduce them and are constantly paying attention to data around what meals are most consumed. We know that kids love chicken teriyaki, burritos, and spaghetti with turkey meatballs, so we include those favorites regularly — to keep participation high.
We are seeing more and more of California’s school nutrition directors, chefs and outside partners crafting well-rounded meals based on high-quality ingredients and avoiding questionable ingredients and additives like high fructose corn syrup and fully hydrogenated fats. Additionally, school meals are required to include whole grains and a healthy variety of vegetables and fruits across the week.
Serve breakfast in the classroom. Schools should take steps to provide meals to students at the times and locations that drive eating and learning. We have seen schools in the Los Angeles area increase breakfast participation rates by 30-40% by serving breakfast after the bell, either in grab-and-go carts or breakfast-in-the-classroom programs. Teachers can use this time to talk about the importance of nutrition, solve fun (and educational) puzzles, or review plans for the day. And as a bonus, principals and teachers say eating in the classroom provides opportunities for social-emotional learning, particularly for younger children.
Track your participation data to increase consumption and reduce waste. As schools work to increase participation to ensure all students are fed, there is also a risk of over-ordering. One report estimates that schools around the U.S. waste almost 530,000 tons of food per year, costing as much as $9.7 million a day. Schools should pay close attention to their meal participation rate data and upcoming school calendars and fine-tune their ordering accordingly. By conducting a monthly review, schools will not only optimize what they’re serving, but how much. Schools can also explore “offer versus serve” models, where instead of offering only pre-assembled meals, serving students directly to their plates allows schools to adjust meal elements, like vegetables and milk, that sometimes don’t fly off the shelves as fast.
Support food servers. Preparing and feeding two meals a day to students at scale places a tremendous burden on cafeteria workers, particularly as schools struggle to find qualified employees. Some self-operating districts partner with outside providers on certain days of the week to diversify meals and give food servers a break. Others rely on partners to provide one meal every day. This respite for employees allows the schools to add innovative supper programs for students in after-school programs.
Use supply chain assistance dollars to prioritize quality ingredients. Schools also have access to USDA supply chain relief funds to buy domestic, unprocessed, or minimally processed food. Our partners often use this to add premium fruit, 100% juice cups and yogurt to their monthly menus, and to stock up on essential items to use during emergencies. It’s those additional offerings that, for many kids, can make all the difference.
Before the introduction of universal free meals, school lunch lines often stigmatized students who received free or reduced-price lunch, leading to feelings of shame. That should never be the case. During the pandemic, school food provided a lifeline for food-insecure families, including families who had never previously experienced food insecurity. With schools reopened, schools can once again be a safe refuge for learning for our students, socially, emotionally and academically. California has the opportunity to demonstrate to the nation that schools can be a safe, comforting and nourishing place for learning for all kids.
Kirsten Saenz Tobey is a co-founder of California-based Revolution Foods, which in partnership with K-12 schools has served over 500 million healthy and fresh meals to students across the country. Prior to founding Revolution Foods, Kirsten was a teacher, researcher and garden educator.