Cross-sectional survey conducted in 2021 and sent via email to all school foodservice directors in Arkansas. A total of 233 foodservice directors, managers, and administrators responded.
More than half (67.9%, n=167) responded that paperwork would be reduced if UFM were implemented, 62.6% (n=154) reported that unpaid meal debt is a concern to the district, 69.5% (n=171) reported that eligibility should be available to all students regardless of income, 61.3% (n=151) reported that providing UFM would make meal service more efficient, and 74.4% (n=183) said that UFM would relieve the work the school has to do to recover unpaid meal debt.
Application To Child Nutrition Professionals
Participants reported UFM would be a worthy governmental expenditure, decrease resources necessary for paperwork, and eliminate concerns stemming from unpaid meal debt. Implementing UFM into schools would increase the amount of meals accessed by students therefore increasing school revenue and could decrease the feelings of stigma attached to reduced and free-meal statuses. Child nutrition professionals may need to expand their understanding regarding the perspective of stakeholders such as parents and teachers, to promote UFM and garner support for the meal program.
Over the past decade, the U.S.’s economic instability has disproportionately affected the families of children from the most vulnerable groups both at home and at school, increasing their risk of food insecurity and malnutrition (Malisova et al., 2021). Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 13 million children experienced food insecurity; however, with remote learning and families out of work, these rates have likely skyrocketed (Kinsey et al., 2020). Nutrition literature defines food insecurity as uncertain or limited access to adequate food (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2020a). Current statistics show that household food insecurity affects as many as 1 in 8 U.S. households (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2017; Mah & McIntyre, 2021). Students experiencing food insecurity often have poorer health, exhibit behavioral issues, and struggle to meet the necessary developmental milestones required to excel in school (Hecht et al., 2020).
Considering these detrimental outcomes, schools are the ideal platform to promote a healthy lifestyle by establishing secure meal plans across the student body, regardless of socioeconomic status (Cohen et al., 2021). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA, 2021) approved an extension to allow school meal programs and childcare institutions across the country to return to serving Universal Free Meals (UFM) for the 2021-2022 school year. Current literature shows UFM programs to be highly beneficial in facilitating stronger student academic performance, improved diet quality, positive classroom behaviors, and better school attendance (Cohen et al., 2021). However, despite the numerous benefits of continuing UFM for all school districts, U.S. policymakers continue to view UFM as COVID-19 dependent leaving many students’ nutritional needs in limbo as the pandemic subsides.
Study Design and Data Collection
The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the perceived barriers and benefits of UFM from the perspective of individuals directly involved with children in school. Participants consisted of school district administrators and school foodservice directors or managers. School nutrition directors were contacted via email using the state directory and asked to respond as well as share with their school administrators, school nutrition managers, and other school nutrition networks. Reminder emails were sent after two business days of participants receiving an email with the survey link. Data collection procedures were approved by the University of Central Arkansas Institutional Review Board. The survey consisted of 34 questions related to meal and snack offerings, unpaid meal debt, and UFM. Previous literature on UFM was reviewed by graduate research assistants and faculty; and any reported benefits and barriers were recorded and phrased into a statement where participants could respond on a Likert-type scale using strongly agree to strongly disagree. After compiling the list of reported barriers and benefits, a panel of faculty researchers and child nutrition directors were asked to review, pilot test, and provide feedback. After this review, several questions were edited for clarity and a free text response asking “Is there anything else you would like us to know about your thoughts on providing UFM to students in public schools?” was added. Once the survey was entered into Qualtrics, the survey analytics tools identified any questions that were hard to read or structured improperly, these were corrected before launching.
An email with the survey link was sent to school personnel from the State Agency contact list. Respondents had two weeks to answer before a reminder was sent and an additional two weeks before the survey was closed. Data were extracted from Qualtrics and imported to SPSS where responses were coded and descriptive analyses conducted.
Results and Discussion
A total of 233 school personnel in Arkansas responded to the survey (see Table 1 for characteristics). Of these, 83 (33.7%) were school district administrators and 150 (64.3%) were foodservice directors or managers. Only 6.9% (n=17) respondents identified their school as Provision 2 and 20.3% (n=50) identified as currently offering Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). A total of 137 (55.7%) were self-operated while 27.2% (n=67) were contract or consultant managed. The average district size was 2,815 (+4543.18; range: 119-38,005) students.
Overall, the responses regarding school meals were favorable (Table 2). Of those that responded to the question, almost all (99%, n=204) responded that students benefit academically from school meals, 95.6% (n=197) reported that providing meals at no cost to students would enhance participation, and 77% (n=157) indicated that they thought test scores improved when meals were provided at no cost.
More than half (81.1%, n=167) responded that paperwork would be reduced if UFM were implemented, 75.1% (n=154) reported that unpaid meal debt is a concern to the district, 83.8% (n=171) reported that eligibility should be available to all students regardless of income, 73.7% (n=151) reported that providing UFM would make meal service more efficient, and 89.3% (n=183) said that UFM would relieve the work the school has to do to recover unpaid meal debt.
Additionally, 53.7% (n=110) reported that they disagreed with the idea that providing meals would impact taxes and government spending, 90.7% (n=186) reported that they disagreed that providing meals universally free would decrease the quality of the food, 88.8% (n=182) said they disagreed with the statement that providing meals free of charge was a misuse of government funding.
Conclusions and Applications
The purpose of this research was to explore the benefits and barriers of implementing UFM’s from the perspective of school administrators and foodservice directors. Results show the majority of participants are in favor of adopting UFM in place of traditional payment structures for reduced or free school meals. Similar to Bartfeld’s (2020) argument that current nutrition programs are structurally vulnerable, the lack of CEP reported in this study demonstrates moving closer to UFMs would likely be a necessary avenue for legislature to consider in order to reach vulnerable students. Participants’ responses reflect a past systematic review which proposed UFM programs are associated with higher quality diets, stronger academics, and increased participation in school lunches (Cohen et al., 2021). Benefits from a UFM implementation would also likely include fewer classroom behavioral problems and stronger food security among all children, regardless of eligibility (Cohen et al., 2021). Lastly, participants did respond that UFM programs would be a worthy governmental expenditure, decrease resources necessary for paperwork, and eliminate concerns stemming from unpaid meal debt.
A limitation of the study is that it lacks a large sample population which could encompass a wide representation from diverse districts across the U.S; therefore, future studies should aim for a larger sample across multiple states to gain a deeper understanding of school administrators’ and foodservice employees’ support for UFM programs. Second, expanding on the perspective of stakeholders such as parents and teachers, could provide useful to gauge overall UFM support. Despite these limitations, the results add to the growing body of evidence that school meal programs can have a wide range of beneficial impacts on children and school employees (Bartfeld et al., 2019).
By implementing UFM policies into school systems, lower income but ineligible children can receive healthy meals and further reduce food insecurity among an extremely vulnerable population (Cohen et al., 2021). Further, there is recognition of connections between nutrition, health, and cognition; however, significant societal barriers often discourage NSLP eligible students from accessing needed dietary resources (Bailey-Davis et al., 2012). Adopting UFM procedures into schools would not only increase the amount of meals accessed by students therefore increasing school revenue, but UFM programs could decrease the feelings of stigma attached to reduced and free-meal statuses. Future studies would benefit from exploring the level of support among legislative stakeholders involved in the politics of nutrition in order to gauge overall feasibility and desirability of implementing UFM policies. Additionally, future researchers could investigate the overall cost, community support, and student access of UFM programs as it continues to be provided under the current COVID-19 UFM initiative in order to clearly view its benefits to traditional nutrition programs.
Bailey-Davis, L., Virus, A., McCoy, T. A., Wojtanowski, A., Veur, S. S. V., & Foster, G. D. (2013). Middle school student and parent perceptions of government-sponsored free school breakfast and consumption: A qualitative inquiry in an urban setting. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(2), 251–251.
Bartfeld, J. S. (2020). The community eligibility provision: Continuing the century-long debate over universal free school meals. American Journal of Public Health, 110(9), 1272–1273. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305853
Bartfeld, J. S., Berger, L., & Men, F. (2020). Universal access to free school meals through the community eligibility provision is associated with better attendance for low-income elementary school students in Wisconsin. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(2), 210–218. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2019.07.022
Cohen, J. F. W., Hecht, A. A., McLoughlin, G. M., Turner, L., & Schwartz, M. B. (2021). Universal school meals and associations with student participation, attendance, academic performance, diet quality, food security, and body mass index: A systematic review. Nutrients, 13(3). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13030911
Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbit, M. P., Gregory, C. A., Singh, A. Household Food Insecurity in the United States in 2017. USDA. Economic Research Report. No. 256. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service: 2018.
Hecht, A. A., Porter, K. M. P., & Turner, L. (2020). Impact of the community eligibility provision of the healthy, hunger-free kids act on student nutrition, behavior, and academic outcomes: 2011–2019. American Journal of Public Health, 110(9), 1405–1410. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305743
Kinsey, E. W., Kinsey, D., & Rundle, A. G. (2020). Covid-19 and food insecurity: An uneven patchwork of responses. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 97(3), 332–335. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-020-00455-5
Mah, C.L., Knox, B., Lynch M., & McIntyre L. (2020). Who Is Food Insecure? Political Storytelling on Hunger, Household Food Choices, and the Construction of Archetypal Populations, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 1(16). 10.1080/19320248.2020.1807434
Malisova, O., Vlassopoulos, A., Kandyliari, A., Panagodimou, E., & Kapsokefalou, M. (2021). Dietary intake and lifestyle habits of children aged 10-12 years enrolled in the school lunch program in Greece: A cross sectional analysis. Nutrients, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13020493
USDA (2020, December 11) School Breakfast—Participation and meals served. [Data set]. US department of Agriculture. Accessed August 25, 2021, https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/ default/files/resource-files/sbsummar-4.pdf
USDA (2021) USDA Issues Pandemic Flexibilities for Schools and Day Care Facilities through June 2022 to Support Safe Reopening and Healthy, Nutritious Meals. [Press release]. Accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/04/20/usda-issues-pandemic-flexibilities-schools-and-day-care-facilities.
Alicia S. Landry, PhD, RD, LDN, SNS is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Family Sciences at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. Jordan Simmons, MS, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas.
Purpose / Objectives
To describe the perceived benefits and barriers to move beyond Community Eligibility Provisions (CEP) and initiating Universal Free Meals (UFM) in all districts across the U.S. that choose to participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).