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Providing School Meals to All Students Free of Cost: Challenges and Benefits Reported by School District Foodservice Professionals to Inform California’s Policy Implementation

  • Program: Food and Nutrition
  • Introduction: California’s school meals for all students (SMFA) – the first of only two states to enact such policy – has the potential to improve nutrition security for millions of K-12 students. Evaluation is imperative to ensure the state’s SMFA policy is implemented optimally and informs policy debates more broadly. Approach: All California foodservice directors (FSDs) were invited to complete a survey about opportunities and challenges experienced during the federally-funded SMFA in response to COVID-19 (SYs2020-22), and anticipating implementation of California’s SMFA policy (SY2022-23). Structured interviews were conducted within a subsample of FSDs and analyzed to enrich descriptive survey findings using an immersion and crystallization approach. Results: The survey response rate was 53% (n=592); 30 FSDs were interviewed. Pandemic and supply-chain challenges were common, including procurement of types (reported by 89%) and amounts (86%) of foods and non-food supplies/equipment (83%). Most reported staffing challenges (77%) and concerns about financial sustainability of foodservice (81%). Impacts attributed to pandemic SMFA implementation included greater student meal participation (79%), less unpaid meal charges (66%), and less student stigma (45%). FSDs reported increases in meal packaging/solid (68%) and food (57%) waste. Concerns in planning to implement SMFA in SY2022-23 were staffing (69%), product/ingredient availability (62%), adequacy of foodservice facility/storage space (57%), and financial sustainability (57%). Quotes from interviews will be presented. Discussion: FSDs reported many benefits and challenges of the SMFA. Identifying the most promising practices for feeding all students while managing labor, supply chain, and waste issues will be critical to successful SMFA implementation.
Wendi Gosliner
Nutrition Policy Institute
Project Scientist
  • Linked Session ID: 941014
  • Authors: Wendi Gosliner1, Monica Zuercher1, Juliana Cohen2, Christina Hecht1, Michele Polacsek3, Kenneth Hecht1, Lindsey Turner4, Marlene Schwartz5, Anisha Patel6, Lorrene Ritchie1
    1Nutrition Policy Institute, 2Merrimack College, 3University of New England, 4Boise State University, 5University of Connecticut, 6Stanford University
  • Learning Outcome 1: Identify 3 challenges and 3 benefits reported by California school district foodservice directors regarding providing school meals for all students free of charge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Learning Outcome 2: Describe several strategies to address and overcome barriers to optimize California’s FSMFA policy once it goes into effect in SY2022-23.
  • Learning Outcome 3: Name 2 ways in which making school meals available to all students free of charge can advance equity and how foodservice professionals perceive this effort.
  • Linked Session Title: School Meals are Essential for Student Health and Learning