An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Advancing Food Justice Through School Meals

School Meals

Karen Spangler

Policy Director, National Farm to School Network


June 20th, 2024


All kids deserve access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods that keep their bodies and minds nourished, and school meals are one of the best tools we have to achieve that. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, every child nationwide received free meals at school. The federal policy providing universal school meals nationwide has ended, but some states have implemented their own policies to offer universal school meals.

We recently spoke with Karen Spangler, policy director at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), to discuss how NFSN is working with state coalitions to advance food justice through school meals, and what a return to a national policy could look like.


Thanks for meeting with us, Karen. Can you start by telling us about NFSN and what brought you to your current role?

Before I joined NFSN as Policy Director, my work was at the community level in Michigan, working with local nonprofits focused on food access. Working with local food producers, gardeners, and farmers markets, I became aware that the policies we had in place weren’t serving the needs of community members—and I wanted to explore solutions to shift that.

The National Farm to School Network is made up of partners in all 50 states, DC, & U.S. territories with a shared vision of a strong and racially just food system for all—starting with a transformation of our country’s school nutrition system. One way that we aim to do that is through policy change that increases the agency of those who have been systematically shut out of decisionmaking processes in our food systems, especially communities of color, food producers, educators, and school nutrition staff.

"When we design a policy, we ask: Who is making the decision? Who decides how resources are allocated? And who are considered the most important stakeholders in a policy?"

Karen Spangler


What brought on NFSN’s commitment to “values-aligned” universal school meals policies?

When the federal universal school meals policy lapsed, states began enacting their own policies for extending school meal access to kids. We saw an opportunity to make sure that those policies align with our values of enriching school communities' connections with locally produced food. So we’ve been working with state leaders and advocates to elevate school meals policies that prioritize farm-to-school practices through food procurement, education, and hands-on programs for students.

There’s a wide array of benefits of farm to school, from helping kids understand the connection between what they eat and how it’s grown, to investing in small farmers and the local economy. Whether the fresh fruits and vegetables served in a school lunch are grown in a school garden or at a farm nearby, any policy that helps us participate in our own food systems has the potential to benefit all community members.

Where and how we procure school food is just as important as the quality of school food we serve, which is why we were so glad to see the USDA expand geographic preference options in its latest rule on school nutrition standards, making it easier for school districts to choose local.

"Values-aligned universal school meals policies have huge potential for returns to a community—not only for kids’ nutrition and health, but also for local food producers and the economy on the whole."

Karen Spangler


What does the next phase in your values-aligned universal meals campaign look like? How will it build on the successes you’ve already had, and what do you see NFSN accomplishing next through new partnerships with state coalitions?

Already, we’ve seen a number of great wins in state-level universal school meals policies, from California to Maine and in many states in between. In this new phase of our campaign, we aim to act as a facilitator among state coalitions, supporting them in building cross-sector relationships that allow them to reach more community members while also learning from their successes and applying them to other states.

For example, in Colorado, where many residents speak Spanish, the state coalition involved peer organizers who could connect with people in the language they are most comfortable using, expanding their reach and educating more community members about the value of universal school meals policies. This approach is something we at NFSN have now incorporated into our work.

And while state coalitions are the experts in their communities, and we want their voices to lead policy conversations, we also know that their resources are spread thin. That’s why we’re proud to offer partnerships with state coalitions in Colorado, New York, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, and hope to establish more so kids in every state can benefit from universal healthy school meals policies.

"Whatever it is that a policymaker cares about—whether it’s health outcomes, job creation, economic strength, or supporting families to thrive—an equitable universal school meals policy is positioned to have a significant impact."

Karen Spangler


What would be your message for state or federal policymakers when it comes to universal school meals?

Healthy school meals for all is a program that impacts every member of a community, whether or not they participate in school meals, because it directly influences the next generation’s ability to have a healthy foundation to learn and grow.

The benefits of a values-aligned universal school meals policy will go far beyond any one group of stakeholders or constituents, because when we invest in healthy, locally grown, and sustainably sourced food for our children, we’re actually investing in a better food system for all of us.

About the Author

Karen Spangler
Policy Director, National Farm to School Network

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