Written by Lindsey Miller, MPH, Research Analyst, Healthy Eating Research

The national school breakfast and lunch programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are cornerstone federal nutrition assistance programs that support children from low-income families. Children receive up to half of their daily calories at school and school meals offer one of the healthiest sources of foods for school-aged children. These critical programs have reduced disparities by offering meals of high nutritional value to students across all socio-economic statuses, races, and ethnicities.

School meals have been a constant source of child nutrition and a bolster to food security for many families since the programs began, but a lot has changed over the last decade. Significant improvements in the nutritional quality of school meals were made as a result of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act which updated nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch, established nutrition standards for snacks sold in schools, and strengthened requirements for local wellness policies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA allowed states to provide free school meals to every child regardless of income via waivers; now several states are finding ways to make these universal free school meals permanent via state funding and policy changes. However, pandemic-related supply chain shortages, staffing shortages, inflation, and changing legislation have presented significant barriers to ensuring children have access to nutritious meals.

Nutrition standards keep changing! Here’s what you need to know

Nutrition standards for school meals have changed numerous times over the past 10 years. Before 2010, nutrition standards for school meals hadn’t been updated for nearly 30 years and were not aligned with the latest nutrition science (hence where school meals got the bad rep). The updated nutrition standards from HHFKA were nationally implemented between 2012 and 2014, and by the 2014-2015 school year 98% of public schools nationwide were meeting them.  However, because of industry pressure and some schools requesting more flexibility, legislation was passed from 2017 to 2019 that weakened nutrition standards specifically related to sodium, whole grains, and milk. Then at the start of the pandemic in 2020, USDA authorized waivers allowing schools flexibility with nutrition standards due to ongoing supply chain, staffing, and logistical challenges facing school food service operations. These waivers came to an end in summer 2022 and transitional nutrition standards went into effect for fall 2022 which promote a healthy diet, but still offer flexibilities given ongoing challenges.

Evidence has shown that improving the nutritional quality of school meals has significant benefits, including:

  1. increased participation in school meal programs, which leads to more kids receiving better nutrition and helps to reduce the stigma of receiving free meals;
  2. improved nutritional quality of meals and better diet quality for participating children; and
  3. reduced food insecurity for participating children and families.

Importantly, research shows that it does not cost more to provide healthy meals. Thus, future efforts should prioritize aligning the nutrition standards with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), including adding an added sugar standard for reimbursable school meals and aligning sodium and whole-grain standards with 2020 DGAs.

All students have been receiving free school meals during the pandemic, but that’s changing this year

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, free school meals for all students were only accessible through the Community Eligibility Provision, a meal service option that allows schools located in high-poverty areas to serve free breakfast and lunch to every child attending that school. During the pandemic, several new mechanisms to distribute free school meals were implemented. Grab-and-Go School Meals (GGSM) allowed school food services to prepare meals for families to take home; this option was available immediately following school closures in spring 2020. Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transactions (P-EBT) became available in summer 2020 and allowed states to issue debit-like cards to income-eligible families for purchasing food to replace missed meals. These complementary programs provided millions of children with food while schools were closed; a Healthy Eating Research commissioned study found that P-EBT reached 89% of eligible children while GGSM reached 27%. Additionally, once schools began to reopen, they were allowed to serve free meals to all children through state waivers and the Keep Kids Fed Act.

Recent research has demonstrated the benefits of offering free school meals. Most importantly, offering free meals to every student improves access to nutritious school meals and improves equity by eliminating barriers such as filling out applications, lunch shaming, and eligibility cut-offs. Offering universal free school meals has also been shown to increase school meal participation, improve diet quality and attendance, and reduce food insecurity.

With nationwide free school meal waivers ending on August 31, 2022, parents and caregivers will again need to apply for their child(ren) to receive free and reduced-price school meals. Healthy Eating Research has been showing this message with parents and caregivers to ensure all eligible families have access to school meals this year. Several states have recognized the merits of providing free school meals to every enrolled child and passed Universal Free Meals bills (e.g., Maine, California, Vermont). Future opportunities for expanding access to free school meals exist primarily via expanding Community Eligibility Provision and state-level campaigns to implement universal free school meals.

What’s next for school meals?

Two policy opportunities are expected in 2023 to further improve the nutritional quality of school meals: 1) A new rule from USDA (called the Durable rule) which would reduce sodium and increase whole grains, among other standards, largely returning to the nutrition standards in place in 2016; and 2) Congress will take up the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), the mechanism by which HHFKA was passed, and which offers an opportunity to further strengthen the child nutrition programs via legislation approximately every 5 years. For example, CNR may provide an opportunity to incorporate an added sugar standard into school meal nutrition standards or to continue to make school meals free to all students permanently.

There are several policy and program opportunities supported by evidence:

  1. Align National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program nutrition standards with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans through Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the Durable Rule.
  2. Improve school meal participation rates. There is strong evidence to support two low-burden strategies to increase participation: offering alternative breakfast models and restricting competitive food sales.
  3. Expand access to school meals through state-level universal free meals and national expansion of Community Eligibility Provision.

HER will be continuing to track what’s new with school nutrition policy and school meal access. Check out all of our latest resources on school meal access, nutrition, and participation below:

School Meal Access and Participation

School Meal Benefits

School Meals During COVID-19