Child nutrition programs are extremely important for students. They fight childhood hunger, improve health, and support academic achievement. The two largest programs are the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. These programs serve an important role in providing healthy and nutritious foods; especially for students whose families do not earn a living wage.  While the pandemic taught use several lessons, one of the biggest highlights was how schools offered no-cost meals to students, regardless of income.   

Healthy School Meals for All expand school breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge. No cost school meals can help overcome the barriers that limit school lunch participation. This is important because it:

  • Ensures all students are hunger-free and ready to learn;
  • Reduces stigma in the cafeteria;
  • Ends school meal debt;
  • Eases administrative burden;
  • Supports innovative service models;
  • Advances racial equity.

The National Farm to School Network conducted case studies of four states that advocate for School Meals for All policies. These states are Vermont, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Michigan. While each approach is different, each state shows that when you expand school meals for all, you also expand farm to school.   

Vermont: Vermont uses a “Virtuous Cycle” for farm to school and universal school meals. A virtuous cycle is a chain of events, where a beneficial action leads to desirable outcomes in a repeating pattern. The state has a Local Purchasing Incentive Grant Program. In 2022, Vermont started a one-year universal school meals program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all public students. Together, the local purchasing incentive and School Meals for All have increased the number of kids eating school food. This creates more money for school districts. The new money allows the district to improve the quality of their school meals. It helps them buy more local and regional foods.  Since the quality of the meals are much better, there is more interest and participation in school meals. This cycle ensures that local food is accessible to all children.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin conducted a study about the trends in school nutrition labor, wages and compensation and how it impacts healthy school meals. Data was collected in two ways. The first way was with an online survey. The second way was at the SNA-WI meeting through in-person sessions. School nutrition staff are paid a low wage; they are part-time and seasonal. This directly impacts what children are eating. Schools have to serve more “hot-and-serve” items and ultra-processed foods. This is because schools do not have the labor to support cooking from scratch. Like Vermont, Wisconsin illustrates the impact labor, no cost school meals and local purchasing incentives has on school meals using the “Virtuous Cycle”.

While schools cannot support scratch-cooking with their current employment model; if school used scratch cooking more, they could hire full time employees. This would improve what school nutrition professionals earn. This will help labor capacity in schools by keeping staff.  No-cost meals and higher reimbursement rates would bring more money to school nutrition programs. It allows schools to improve compensation and job quality for their workers. This would lead to nourished children, strong schools, caring communities and thriving local farms. Investing in the workforce is important to the success of farm to school programs, since they also develop local economies and communities.

Connecticut: Funds from the pandemic were used to invest $16 million into the Connecticut school meal program last year. The funding allowed K-12 students to receive free breakfast. The students who qualify for reduced meals received free lunches. People and organizations that support School Meals 4 All CT, request that the program continues. Like Vermont and Wisconsin, Connecticut uses the Virtuous Cycle. It shows how three inputs: School Meals for All, a grant program that supports school meals, and local food purchasing program can impact school meals. These inputs can elevate school meals and increase participation.

Michigan: Michigan has universal free meals for their students. This means that Michigan School Meals program will serve lunch and breakfast at no cost to students. Michigan also has a program that allows schools and early childhood education centers to be reimbursed if they buy and serve local fruits, vegetables and legumes. They can receive up to 10 cents per meal! This is called the 10 Cents a Meal Initiative. To better understand the 10 Cents a Meal Initiative a graphic was created. This graphic is called “What’s on Your Plate”. The graphic shows how different school meal programs can impact the meal content and cost, and the local economy. The school meal programs shown are Michigan School Meals Program and the 10 Cents a Meal Initiative. It shows how the two programs work together. It also shows how school meals look without either program. The graphic shows that Michigan School Meals program and 10 Cents a Meal Initiative, together, result in a larger investment in the community. This is because more students participated in no-cost meals using local food. Since the schools are reimbursed more for this, they can continue to buy local food. Since more local food is needed for school lunches, there is a larger investment in the local economy. This is a win for children and a win for local farmers! 

School Meals for All can have immediate, mid-term and long-term benefits. These can even increase local food in schools!  For more information, check out this two-pager created by the National Farm to School Network! 

Ohio does not have School Meals for All legislation passed. Healthy school meals for all students would change the entire school food system. Feed Our Future believes every child, no matter where they go to school should have healthy, fresh and (when available) local food. This can be a reality if every child has access to no-cost school meals. Through the USDA-funded, Regional Food System Partnership Grant, we are working with both schools and local farmers to understand their experiences and lived perspectives of working with each other. This information is important to know, to ensure our efforts are benefiting both schools and local farmers. When more students eat meals with more local, there is a larger invest in our community. 

There are 413,000 children across Ohio that lives in a household that faces hunger. Yet more than one in three kids that live in these households do not qualify for school meals. That is why Feed Our Future advocates for Healthy School Meals for All.  Thinking of starting your own advocacy group to expand no-cost meals to all children? Check out Chef Ann Foundation’s School Food Advocacy Toolkit. Another way to advocate is by contacting your legislator today! You can do this by clicking here.