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The Six-Ingredient Recipe for Universal School Meals: Lessons from California

By Anne Moertel and Abby Halperin, Center for Ecoliteracy

Boy selecting item for school meal

This summer, our home state of California became the first in the country to pass a state budget that includes universal school meals for all 6 million of its public school students. That’s important because almost 60% of public school students in California qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the federal guidelines. This system, however, was leaving many hungry students behind. California’s high cost of living meant that while some students may not have qualified for free meals based on federal guidelines, their families still needed food assistance. Research shows nutritious school meals are essential for students’ health and learning. Ensuring students have consistent access to healthy meals at school is not only necessary for helping families recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a critical strategy for alleviating hunger, food insecurity, and poverty across our state.

With this new legislation, California has made a tremendous investment in our children’s health and well-being. Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, California schools will receive $650 million in ongoing funds to permanently provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school students. Schools will receive another $150 million for staff training and kitchen upgrades to support freshly prepared meals, as well as $30 million for the next two school years for farm-to-school, providing a pipeline of fresh, local, and nutritious foods for students across the state. 

The School Meals for All coalition included labor, agriculture, health, food banks, and nonprofit organizations, as well as school districts from the Center for Ecoliteracy’s California Food for California Kids® Network. Together, the coalition advocated for School Meals for All as an essential investment in the health of California’s children.

Since this win in California, Maine has passed its own state-wide universal school meals plan, and campaigns are also underway in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and other states. We are cheering these states on and encourage more states to follow suit. That’s why we’re sharing the six key ingredients to our success, which may guide other advocates and policymakers in providing free, healthy school meals for all students, no matter where they live.

  1. Build partnerships. Partnerships allowed us to build a broad multi-stakeholder coalition in support of School Meals for All. The Center for Ecoliteracy worked with legislative champion Senator Nancy Skinner and fellow co-sponsors — the California Association of Food Banks, NextGen California, and the Office of Kat Taylor — to bring diverse stakeholders to the table. Our goal was to have 100 groups sign on to this legislation, but we ended up garnering support from over 200 organizations.
  1. Coordinate your approach. A statewide universal school meals program stands to benefit various school food stakeholders and help address challenges school districts face: access to school meals, support for labor, and providing more local, freshly prepared school meals. Our aim was to build a unified coalition around these core issues and cultivate bipartisan support — and we succeeded!
  1. Seize the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how essential school meals are to alleviating child hunger. Across the country, families lined up to get free meals at schools and food banks as hunger and economic insecurity spiked. In the meantime, federal USDA waivers demonstrated that universal school meals were possible. We seized on the country’s renewed attention to the need for school meals to achieve support for this groundbreaking policy.
  1. Include insights and advocacy from those on the ground. Through relationships with nearly 100 school districts in our California Food for California Kids Network, we learned that the top policy priority for school nutrition directors was universal school meals. With this insight, we connected school nutrition directors with policymakers, supported them in testifying at hearings, and elevated their voices in the press and on social media.
  1. Harness the power of research and data. We utilized research and data to tell personalized and relevant stories to policymakers about the need for universal school meals. For example, an early version of the state budget took an important first step by providing funding to encourage schools to participate in federal universal school meal provisions, but fell short of the full vision of universal school meals. We were able to show that with this partial measure, up to 50% of California’s public schools with 2.9 million students would still not qualify to serve universal school meals. Personalized reports for key legislators about the schools in their districts that would be left out helped make the case that more state funding was needed.
  1. Know your audience and communicate often. We tailored our communications to each audience. A messaging study found that the term “universal meals” lacked popularity, so we branded our campaign “School Meals for All” based on the recommendations to garner bipartisan support. We used simple, easily understood facts for general audiences and deeper data and research for policymakers. At the same time, we kept the School Meals for All coalition updated every step of the way. We also pursued earned media and opinion editorials to build awareness in key legislative districts.

The success of this campaign was built upon the support and hard work of advocates across the state who understand how important it is to have healthy, thriving students in California. We hope that advocates who are advancing universal school meal legislation in their own states find our strategies helpful. Read more about our work in The New York Times.

Priority Policy

School Meals and Snacks

Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide more than 29 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. 

See The Policy

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