How Universal Meals Could Revolutionize School Food

July 15, 2009

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

The challenges of serving a healthy school meal are numerous – logistics, cost, and even the paperwork all create barriers to providing healthy meals to the students who need them.  

One source of paperwork is the requirements around providing free and reduced-cost meals to students whose families qualify. Currently, 10 percent of the federal reimbursement for school lunches goes toward administration and oversight of the program. If this amount is reduced – by, say, increasing efficiency and reducing the amount of paperwork and administration – school food directors could spend more of that money on higher quality and more nutritious food.   

Fortunately, several bills have been introduced to address this very issue. A “universal meals” program would reduce paperwork while promoting broad access to school food. In such a program, schools wouldn't have to fill out the tedious paperwork to apply for federal reimbursements. Rather, “the government reimburses schools based on the percentage of eligible students. The school absorbs the costs of the remaining free meals, which… evens out because of the money saved on administrative costs.” As explained in one recent AP story

Universal meals mean better nutrition and a better educational experience for a greater percentage of low-income children, said Wilson, who is also president of School Nutrition Association. “We have all the science that shows good nutrition helps kids succeed in the classroom,” she said. “We need to look at it as part of the school day.” 

Recently Sen. Sherrod Brown (D. Ohio) introduced legislation to improve and expand the universal meals program. This is a no-brainer. Rather than spending our education dollars on paperwork, let’s spend it on making better food programs. 

To learn more and take action:
  • Check out our past blogs on how Philadelphia provides kids with free breakfast or lunch thanks to universal meals, and how the stigma of traditional free lunch programs makes some students skip eating. 
  • Visit our partner, the Food Resource and Action Center (FRAC) to learn more and contact your legislators in support of this bill.