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Navigating the Impact of Pandemic Policy Changes on School Nutrition Programs: Insights from the 2022–2023 School Year 




The 2022–2023 school year marked a pivotal moment for school nutrition programs across the United States. With the expiration of pandemic-era waivers that offered free meals to all students, schools navigated a transition back to pre-pandemic operations. The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC)'s comprehensive report reveals nuanced impacts of this transition, showcasing the critical role of policy decisions in supporting student access to nutritious meals. Here's a deeper dive into the findings and the varied landscape of school breakfast and lunch participation across the nation. 

 

Key Findings: A Closer Look at Decreases in Participation 

 

  • Significant Reductions in Meal Participation: The school year saw a marked decrease in the number of children participating in both breakfast and lunch programs. Specifically, the school breakfast program experienced a decline of nearly 1.2 million children, resulting in just over 14.3 million participants. The lunch program wasn't spared, witnessing a reduction of about 1.8 million children, with total participation dropping to over 28.1 million. 

  • Widespread Impact with State-by-State Variations: The decline in participation wasn't uniform across the country. While 42 states and the District of Columbia reported decreases in both breakfast and lunch participation, a handful of states bucked this trend, showcasing the protective effect of maintaining free meal offerings. 

  • The Role of Policy in Participation Rates: States that either continued to offer meals at no charge or introduced Healthy School Meals for All policies—such as California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—saw not just stability but increases in participation rates. This highlights the power of policy to counteract broader trends of declining participation. 

 

 Understanding State Variations: Who Saw Increases? 

 

The resilience in participation rates within certain states underscores a vital lesson: policy frameworks play a decisive role in ensuring student access to nutrition. States with Healthy School Meals for All policies or those that maintained free meal offerings showcased potential pathways to mitigate the impacts of transitioning away from pandemic-era provisions. For instance: 

 

  • California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont: These states enacted Healthy School Meals for All legislation, directly contributing to increased participation in their school meal programs. 

  • Notable Increases Amidst a National Decline: Pennsylvania, with its Healthy School Breakfast for All policy, saw a rise in breakfast participation, emphasizing the specific impact of targeted meal policies. 

  • Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) as a Catalyst: States with high rates of CEP adoption, like Kentucky and Louisiana, or those that significantly increased their school participation in CEP—such as Connecticut, North Carolina, and Texas—witnessed improvements in meal participation rates. 

 

Moving Forward: Strategies for Expansion and Access 

 

The FRAC report not only illuminates the challenges faced by school nutrition programs in the wake of policy changes but also charts a course for future action: 

 

  • Promotion of Healthy School Meals for All Policies: The evidence suggests that adopting policies providing free meals universally can significantly enhance participation and ensure that economic barriers do not prevent access to nutritious school meals. 

  • Maximizing Community Eligibility Provision: Expanding CEP allows more schools to offer meals at no cost, reducing administrative burdens and making school meal programs more accessible. 

  • Adopting Innovative Meal Service Models: Implementing flexible breakfast models, such as breakfast in the classroom and grab-and-go options, can overcome logistical barriers to meal access, ensuring students start their day ready to learn. 

 

The 2022–2023 school year offered valuable lessons on the critical role of school meal programs in supporting student well-being and academic readiness. As we look to the future, leveraging policy tools and innovative service models will be key to sustaining and expanding access to nutritious meals for every student.  

 

Read the full report from FRAC here

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