Implementation of Universal School Meals During COVID-19 and Beyond: School Food Authority and Parent Perspectives

Background: During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools provided free meals to all students in the United States, but this national Universal School Meals (USM) policy (also known as Healthy School Meals for All or, “HSM4A”) ended in school year (SY) 2022-23. A few states (California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont) adopted state-level USM policies for SY 2022-23 and several more states have either passed or are currently considering similar legislation for upcoming school years. In September 2022, The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health also called for expansion of USM at the federal-level. Universal school meals policies can have potentially positive impacts on child health outcomes. Yet, research is needed to understand challenges and successful strategies for continuing USM, along with examining pandemic-related challenges that are likely to persist in schools beyond the public health crisis. We conducted an evaluation in Maine and California—states that passed legislation to continue USM indefinitely—on the impact of this policy and examined differences in implementation by school characteristics, using a cross-sectional, mixed-methods design.

Methods: 581 school food authorities (SFAs) and 1,110 parents in California, and 43 SFAs and 80 parents in Maine were surveyed. Differences in COVID-19 and USM experiences were examined by school demographics using analysis of variance. Parent survey data were analyzed using linear and logistic regression. 29 SFAs and 46 parents in California and 20 SFAs and 14 parents in Maine participated in interviews. Qualitative interviews were analyzed using an immersion/crystallization approach.

Results: The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many challenges for SFAs, particularly regarding supply chain issues and food procurement, staffing shortages, and costs. 69% of SFAs in Maine and 77% of SFAs in California reported foodservice staffing challenges. Perceived impact of crowing in cafeteria dining areas and amount of time spent on lunch lines were mixed. Parent respondents reported cost savings (84% in Maine; 82% of in California), time savings (82% in Maine; 79% of in California), and stress reduction (79% in Maine; 75% of in California) and generally positive views of schools meals and satisfaction with meal quality and quantity. As a result of USM, SFAs reported increased meal participation (75% in Maine; 79% of in California), elimination of unpaid meal charges and debt (57% in Maine; 81% of in California), and reduction in perceived stigma for students and households (51% in Maine; 40% of in California). SFAS reported needing: (1) resources to help increase school meal participation, (2) communications and marketing to students and parents, (3) alternative ways to collect families’ economic status, (4) additional reimbursement for school meals, and (5) funding support for facilities and equipment. Parents expressed wanting alternatives to traditional school meal application forms such as online options as well as form language that is less stigmatizing.

Policy & Practice Recommendations: Based on this study's findings, we recommend the following activities to expand school meal participation, to make the process of applying for and providing school meals to more students, and when considering expanding USM policies to other states:

  • Additional support and opportunities for professional development and training of SFA staff to further increase school meal participation.
  • Innovations to school meal application processes such as electronic and online meal applications and alternative methods for determining household economic status, and policies and legislation to support such innovations.
  • Ensure that direct certification systems are as effective as possible to identify eligible students for free or reduced-priced meals. 
  • Continued grant funding for SFAs to purchase equipment and/or local products. 
  • Provide higher reimbursement rates for school meals.