Values-Aligned Universal Meals

Envisioning an Equitable Food System for All

The COVID-19 pandemic radically shifted how child nutrition programs operate, with school nutrition professionals working tirelessly to feed kids under emergency conditions with limited resources. One clear takeaway for school nutrition professionals is that universal school meals are a necessity—one that lets them focus on nourishing kids without the administrative burden that comes with manually verifying each student for free or reduced-priced meals. With this previous system, only certain income-eligible students received free or reduced-price meals, but this was restrictive and never provided meals to all in need. Before the pandemic, school nutrition programs also did not have the adequate resources they needed to maximize the benefits of these crucial programs. Finally, the pandemic highlighted the urgency of moving toward a more resilient local food supply that builds racial and social equity. 

A policy of universal school and early care and education (ECE) meals for all kids, embedded with the core values of farm to school, has the potential to radically transform our food system for the better. That’s why National Farm to School Network is advocating for Values-Aligned Universal Meals focused on equity for the most impacted stakeholders across the food system. 

Our efforts are guided by six key values that collectively work to establish a just, equitable food system that promotes the health of all school children and benefits producers, workers, educators, and their communities:  

  • Economic justice
  • Environmental justice
  • Health impact
  • Prioritizing racial equity
  • Respecting workers and educators
  • Animal welfare

Read more about each of our six values and why they matter in this work.

School Meals: Who's at the Table? 

More folks than you would think.

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Benefits of Values-Aligned Universal School Meals

Reduced administrative burden on schools and families: 

Previously, schools participating in the free and reduced lunch program through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) were required to collect paperwork for each student to confirm eligibility. This process typically includes advertising the program to families and ensuring that each qualifying student has the opportunity to apply. However, many parents may hesitate to apply for fear of sharing information with a government program and difficulty understanding or documenting eligibility. This places an unfair burden on immigrant families, families of color, and families with fluctuating income, preventing many from accessing free school meals despite the need. The school meals waivers enacted during the pandemic addressed this issue and allowed schools to serve free meals to all students without the paperwork. This was a big win for schools because it allowed staff to instead devote more time and resources to feeding students and helping them learn. 

Advances equity in schools: 

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch often face stigma and bullying due to the association of free meals to poverty. This impacts students’ mental health and learning outcomes—a values-aligned universal meals program has the potential to ensure kids get high-quality nourishment free of stigma. 

Improved quality of meals through scratch cooking and local procurement: 

School nutrition professionals and cafeteria staff have seen tremendous benefit from the flexibilities granted by the waivers, which extended beyond ensuring that all kids were fed. Universal school meals incentivize greater participation in school meal programs, which lets schools devote more money to paying staff, investing in equipment, and pursuing initiatives like farm to school. The higher reimbursement rates and added flexibility granted by the waivers allowed some schools to preserve their gains in local procurement and scratch cooking. Many school district leaders agree that universal meals would provide the additional funding to incorporate more scratch cooking and local farm to school initiatives into their meal programs:  

Supports school cafeteria staff: 

Historically, school meal programs’ financial resources have been stretched thin due to low federal reimbursement rates for school meals. This often forces school districts to hire workers part-time at very low wages without benefits, to simply heat and serve pre-made meals. The increased reimbursement rates and universal free meals allowed by the pandemic-era waivers have been a lifeline for school meals programs. However, when these federal child nutrition waivers expire on June 30, 2022, many schools around the country will once again struggle to cover costs and support their cafeteria staff. 

“Having all students covered under the federal waivers has reduced the time staff previously spent collecting paperwork to qualify students for free or reduced meals. And, families no longer have to worry about whether there is money in their student’s lunch account or unpaid lunch debt.” 

Shelley Chenausky, director of Child Nutrition Services at Socorro Independent School District, Texas
“[When the waivers end], schools will once again be forced to devote their already stretched resources to processing and verifying income applications to see who qualifies for free and reduced-price meals — a system that causes many students in need to miss out due to stringent income eligibility guidelines and application challenges.”

Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center
“With more children and families facing food insecurity, school meals are a reliable and safe source of nourishment. By providing meals to all students regardless of their caregivers’ economic status (regardless of need), universal free meal policies are also a powerful tool for advancing equity in schools, as free meals substantially reduce the stigma around kids from low-income backgrounds eating free lunch in school cafeterias.”

Arne Duncan, former United States Secretary of Education and Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, and Jennifer LeBarre, executive director, student nutrition services at San Francisco Unified School District
“Thanks to flexibility under the waivers and the increased meal participation they have brought, some districts have been able to protect investments in the quality of their food [through advances in scratch cooking]... Scratch cooking enables school districts to serve the best food… The kitchen staff are proud of what they've made. There's a connection with the local farms. Supply chains are shorter and more crisis-proof. Labor costs go to local folks because they are paid to cook in-house.” 

Anneliese Tanner, board member of the National Farm to School Network and the Director of Research and Assessment at Chef Ann Foundation
“My pay comes from those reimbursements. They could afford to pay us more and they could afford to hire more of us if everyone was eating the lunches and breakfasts.” 

Heather Hillenbrand, a public school cafeteria worker in Akron, Ohio

Advancing Values-Aligned Policy

The child nutrition waivers are set to expire June 30, 2022 if Congress does not act. We were deeply disappointed that the most recent omnibus spending bill did not include funding to extend these waivers (our statement on the bill here). This premature return to the pre-pandemic system of school meals will push millions of kids and families into food insecurity while greatly disrupting school meals programs. 

On March 31, 2022, Senator Stabenow and Senator Murkowski introduced a bipartisan bill, the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act. This bill would extend child nutrition waivers from June 30, 2022 to September 30, 2023 and is currently being considered by Congress.

Please act today to either thank your Senators for co-sponsoring the bill, or urge them to do so. We are asking Congress to pass this bill at the earliest opportunity to ensure that schools are given the time and resources necessary to recover from the pandemic. 

Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act 2022

As Congress takes up the next Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR), we have an important opportunity—the first in a decade—to leverage federal farm to school and other child nutrition policies to shift power towards a racially just food system. Together with our network of partners and supporters across the country, we call on all Members of Congress to show their commitment to the well-being of our nation’s kids, family farmers, and food-producing communities by strengthening farm to school, increasing access for all kids, and advancing racial equity opportunities in the next CNR. Learn more here

Interactive State Policy Map

National Farm to School Network’s Policy Team is excited to introduce a new State Policy Map resource to our network. This tool is helping to advance our shared values as it displays state bills that we are tracking in the following areas: 

  • Expanding Access for All Kids
  • Farm to School/Farm to ECE
  • Values-Aligned Procurement and Equitable Producer Support
  • Scratch Cooking, School Wellness, and Labor

To shift power toward a more racially just food system, there are many policy barriers and changes needed to support communities. This map highlights not just farm to school and farm to ECE activities, but the work of many advocates toward greater equity for kids, families, and communities.

To see what’s currently happening in your state or territory, click here. If you are working on or aware of a state bill regarding farm to school activities, local procurement or producer support, universal meals, or school wellness policies and would like for it to be included on this map, please reach out to NFSN's Programs Director Karen Spangler at