September 6, 2023
States are frequent labs of innovation for public policy and often model policies for Congress to pass nationwide. Eight states are doing just that by offering all students, regardless of household income, free school meals as they return to school this fall.
California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, Michigan, and Massachusetts have all passed free Healthy School Meals for All policies. Additionally, Nevada is putting pandemic funds to good use by offering one more year of free school meals to all students.
The idea of offering free meals to all students as a part of the school day is not new. In fact, in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, author Dr. Janet Poppendieck notes there have been calls for free school meals since at least the 1940s. The pandemic greatly changed the landscape of school nutrition and highlighted to many the critical role that school meals play in supporting student health and learning. With several states now implementing free Healthy School Meals for All, communities can see these policies in action, strengthening the future rollout of additional states’ policies, and ultimately, nationwide legislation.
At its core, state Healthy School Meals for All policies dedicate state funds to cover the cost between offering free meals to all students and the school meal reimbursements that the state receives from the federal government through the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. Other possible components of the legislation can include state funding for staff training, cafeteria equipment, local food procurement, school nutrition wages, evaluation, and more.
States have passed free school meal policies through:
- standalone bills (i.e., Minnesota)
- budget bills (i.e., California)
- a ballot measure (one state to date: Colorado)
With many states returning to school with free school meals for all policies, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) recently hosted a webinar on considerations for implementation.
Tips for free school meals success:
- Participation will likely increase when school meals are free to all students. One of the biggest benefits of free school meals is that more students participate in school breakfast and school lunch, decreasing stigma in the cafeteria and ensuring that students are hunger-free and ready to get the most out of their school day. Student participation from school year 2021–2022 when schools were operating under the Seamless Summer Option waiver is likely a good indicator of what participation will look like for states that now have free school meal policies. Schools that utilize the Community Eligibility Provision are not likely to see participation changes because meals in those schools are already free to all students.
- Staffing needs may increase as more students eat school meals. As participation increases, there may be a need for more school nutrition staff to help with food preparation and meal service. This may lead to more hours for existing staff, hiring additional staff, or using new staffing models such as having staff move to different schools throughout the day.
- Innovative service models can now be implemented more easily. When all students have access to free meals, a world of opportunity opens for innovative meal service models. Breakfast in the classroom, hallway kiosks, and vending machines can be considered to handle increased participation and ensure that students efficiently pick up meals and have time to eat.
The 2023–2024 school year will be a time to continue the momentum and embrace free school meals for all! Learn from states that are implementing policies this year, and visit www.freeschoolmealsforall.org for new resources throughout the year.