Creating Universal School Meals typography

By Alisha Kirby

Innovative farms, from-scratch cooking and local produce shine in districts ensuring all students can access healthy, delicious food

The clatter of plastic trays.
The grumbling of hungry bellies.
A palpable excitement not for the beige, barely edible items about to be consumed, but for the promise of recess. Lunch time in public schools, once more of a chore than a respite, is being transformed in California through shifts in policy, increased funding and innovation in local districts, where leaders are getting creative with menus and much more.

Progress has largely been driven by the pandemic, which spotlighted both the growing severity of childhood food insecurity and the role school meal programs play as part of the solution. Data released in September 2022 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service showed food insecurity rates among children across race and ethnicity dropped between 2020 and 2021 when universal school meals were implemented nationwide.


tarting with the 2022–23 school year, California became the first state to offer universal school meals (breakfast and lunch) statewide. In 2021–22, lawmakers committed to allocating $650 million each year to the universal free meal program, and in the 2022–23 budget, provided an extra $600 million toward a grant program to upgrade schools’ kitchen infrastructure and training (KIT) and $100 million for a grant program to promote the best food-procurement practices, such as buying California-grown produce and providing options for students with dietary restrictions.

Districts are already getting creative

West Contra Costa Unified School District used the extra funds to purchase a mobile food truck, and through a partnership with the nonprofit Conscious Kitchen, the district receives fresh produce for scratch-cooked school meals to complement new menu offerings including spicy maple-glazed chicken, ham musubi and strawberry muffins. In Santa Ana USD, KIT funds largely went toward the purchase of tilt skillets and gas and steam combination ovens for its school site production kitchens, as well as a cook-chill system and more at its central kitchen.

Such efforts will go a long way toward ensuring California’s shift to offering universal meals is a success, which experts say is critically important as schools continue to grapple with the lingering effects of the pandemic. Recent research stresses the benefits of providing free school meals, including improved academic outcomes and student attendance, and reductions in suspension rates.

“Everybody knows that when kids are hungry, they can’t focus, they can’t concentrate and they have a hard time behaving. And as schools are working so hard to overcome the learning disruptions that were created by the pandemic — the social-emotional impacts, the health impacts — offering free meals to all students is a really easy way to support academics, behavior and mental health,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). “We’re definitely very excited about what California’s done. We want to keep moving in that direction where we’re creating positive experiences and providing healthy meals to kids in the school cafeteria.”

Innovation in universal meals

On the Central Coast, cooperation is helping to drive progress, allowing districts to more easily procure fresh, local ingredients in bulk. San Miguel Joint Union School District, Lucia Mar USD, Shandon Joint USD, Paso Robles JUSD and San Luis Coastal USD are among those where nutrition officials helping one another has become the norm.

“Everybody knows that when kids are hungry, they can’t focus, they can’t concentrate and they have a hard time behaving … offering free meals to all students is a really easy way to support academics, behavior and mental health.”

– Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center
For instance, while Shandon and San Miguel can’t place large enough orders on their own with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Strawberry Center, they can place an order in tandem with Paso Robles and pick the fruit up themselves from there.

“It’s one step further that I have to take, but I’m willing to do that to get fresh produce local and make that impact,” said Lauren Thomas, director of food services at San Miguel Joint Union. A classically trained chef and dietitian, Thomas said she’s been able to meet school meal requirements while ensuring meals are tasty as well as healthy. For instance, she can determine substitutes that can be made to retain a savory flavor without giving foods too much salt and work it into a recipe that can be scaled inexpensively.

These skills, alongside her enjoyment exposing children to all of the unique foods grown in their own communities, has led to hands-on nutrition education opportunities. Through “harvest of the month,” K-5 children in San Miguel get to try new fruits and vegetables before they hit the cafeteria salad bar. “There’s a local farmer that has cotton candy and mango grapes, and instead of just throwing grapes on the salad bar, we did a big taste test and celebrated that farm and those grapes with the kids. It’s that continuous exposure that will change people’s relationship with food for generations to come,” Thomas explained.

Michael Jochner, director of student nutrition at Morgan Hill USD, also leans on his background as a chef at Google as he continues to revolutionize the district’s menu and ingredient procurement. At the time of this interview, the district was operating one Freight Farm, growing about 60 percent of its own salad bar lettuce, with a second Freight Farm on the way. The hydroponic vertical farm — which earned the district a 2022 Golden Bell Award — resides inside a 40-foot shipping container sitting on 320-square feet of land and operates on less than five gallons of water per day. And since it’s tied into the Ann Sobrato High School’s solar arrays, its carbon footprint is essentially zero.

The lettuce harvested is walked roughly 30 feet into the production kitchen where it’s packaged and distributed to all 13 school sites with other items, Jochner said. “The lettuce is really phase one. The high school has a greenhouse, and my goal is to grow cherry tomatoes and cucumbers using a Dutch bucket system where the water that gets used is returned to a reservoir where the nutrient level gets checked and corrected by a computer program that we have,” he said. “Tentatively, I think I can grow about 25 percent of my cherry tomato needs in that 40-foot greenhouse. And that’s all part of my larger vision, to show that a district doesn’t need a lot of land to grow things.”

In Fresno USD, located in California’s agricultural epicenter, family engagement is a primary driver of change to school meals.

“I grew up as a child of farm laborers — one of the issues that impacted my family historically was food insecurity,” said district trustee Veva Islas. Ensuring their children are well fed is a common value among communities where disadvantaged people suffered food insecurity in their countries of origin. “So, nine times out of 10, when I have conversations with my constituents, it all comes back to school meals. I think that community input is immensely valuable in helping us shape and create policies that better serve our interest in making sure students are well fed.”

Parents have asked for healthier options, including vegetarian meals, more scratch-cooked foods, less plastic in the preparation and presentation of meals, and better access to hydration stations.

Fresno USD used KIT funds to purchase equipment that will allow food to be packaged differently; efforts are being made to do more food tastings with students; and a more functional app and interactive website provide families with an image and description of each item, as well as nutrition and allergen information.

Challenges and opportunities

Food waste

As with any new initiative, there are bound to be hiccups and room for growth. When it comes to school kitchens, the potential for increased food waste is often at the top of the list of concerns.

“There’s a lot of things that districts can do to reduce food waste. It starts with really tracking that if an item is on your school menu, kids are eating it,” said FRAC’s FitzSimons. “And then there’s structural things, too. Having recess before lunch so kids are more likely to spend their time eating all of their lunch — they’re not racing to get out onto the playground — that’s a great strategy to reduce food waste.”

“Nine times out of 10, when I have conversations with my constituents, it all comes back to school meals. I think that community input is immensely valuable in helping us shape and create policies that better serve our interest in making sure students are well fed.”
– Veva Islas, trustee,
Fresno USD
In Morgan Hill, the ability to procure the freshest possible ingredients has led to a decrease in food waste that occurs before food hits the trays, Jochner said. “We ship living lettuce from the farm to the sites, so it arrives to each of our elementary schools with the grow plug intact, which means it’s still actually growing by the time it gets to the site. And the sites take a pair of garden shears and all they do is just cut the lettuce right off the grow plug and put it right into the salad bar,” he explained. “We probably threw away 20 percent of the lettuce we got from the USDA, dead on arrival.”

Unique ingredients and presentation are also a crucial part of the solution, San Miguel’s Thomas said. “I try and curate the menu toward what kids want to eat, but at the same time, the other part of my job is exposing them to new foods. Especially here in this area, so many children grow up with a very limited palette maybe because of food insecurity, maybe because of cultural preferences,” she said.

“At the end of the day, we do need to follow the requirements, but I do think there are ways to switch it up. Kids don’t want to eat garbanzo beans, but they’ll eat chocolate hummus,” Thomas continued. “So, let’s make chocolate hummus. They’re still meeting their legume requirement, but it’s flavorful, they can dip it with their fresh apple. This is my second year and I’ve already seen a decrease in food waste and an increase in excitement over school meals.”

Tracking free and reduced-price meals
Under the state’s universal meals program, the California Department of Education will reimburse districts for all non-reimbursed expenses accrued in providing federally reimbursable meals to students so long as the district participates in the federal School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs and serves USDA-reimbursable meals.
illustration of the backs of give students showing their backpacks
“I try and curate the menu toward what kids want to eat, but at the same time, the other part of my job is exposing them to new foods. Especially here in this area, so many children grow up with a very limited palette.”
– Lauren Thomas, director of food services,
San Miguel Joint Union SD
That — combined with the fact many schools rely on free and reduced meal applications as a way of reporting the number of low-income youth served districtwide to receive additional state funding — means that children are once again tracked for meal participation.

This is a far cry from the way things operated during COVID-related school closures, when federal waivers allowed all students regardless of income to pick up school meals, no questions asked.

“You didn’t need an ID or a code. You just walked up, we handed you lunch and you walked away,” Jochner said. “It was amazing to see kids eating lunch who never had before because they were either embarrassed or shy. Whatever the stigmatism was about getting a school lunch evaporated, and everybody was participating. Now we’re in universal free meals, which sounds great, but unfortunately, we’re still using tracking methods that have reapplied the same stigmatism to school lunch.”

The issue is a “double-edged sword” where the benefit outweighs the negative, said Islas, as districts must demonstrate that they serve a population with great needs so they receive adequate resources to help families. “It isn’t easy to grow up in poverty. Not only is food insecurity an issue, but stable housing, being able to afford to pay rent, being able to keep utilities on, being able to have an internet service plan — all of these are issues that families living in poverty struggle with,” she said, “So, we as a district have to have data about the breadth of students that we have in households struggling to make ends meet.”

One way Thomas hopes to reduce stigma is by making the food irresistible. Some families may not be in need, but they know that the food is local and tastes great, so they’ll have their kids eat school-prepared meals. “I always tell my staff and the kids, ‘I’m not going to serve anything that I don’t want to also eat.’ I think it’s just getting away from that stigma of like, ‘it’s just school food. It’s gross, it’s prepackaged,’” she said.

Senate Bill 490
In late September 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 490, which bars TK-12 schools that receive federal meal reimbursement funding from buying foreign food products unless the international option is at least 25 percent less expensive than the domestic alternative. At the time of the signing there was significant concern that such a restriction would cost schools an additional $474 million annually at a time when rising costs and substantial inflation were already straining school budgets.

The good news is that even with a projected state budget deficit, the Governor’s January Budget Proposal protects the commitment made to fund universal meals, but nothing is proposed to cover cost increases from SB 490. “The cost of providing universal meals will increase in the coming year due to adoption of SB 490, which was not funded in the 2022–23 budget,” said CSBA Assistant Executive Director of Government Relations Dennis Meyers. “CSBA is urging legislators and the Governor to provide additional and ongoing funding to cover the increased costs, which will otherwise jeopardize the implementation of universal meals.”

Despite potential budgetary challenges, all three district officials were fully supportive of the intentions of the bill and, for the most part, already implementing it. Buying local helps contribute to a reduction of pollution and invests into local economies and small farms, Islas said. “We’re shifting dollars from the treatment of poor health into mitigations that invest in trying to clean up our air, into spending on locally grown produce that’s better for all of us. In the end, for me as a public health advocate and a school board member, that’s the cherry on top.”

Simply tailoring menus to emphasize what’s already available and being creative with those ingredients is in itself a cost-saving measure, Thomas explained. “I’m not going to serve bananas or anything like that because … we’re just such a bountiful state, and the more you choose fruits and vegetables that are in season, it decreases the climate impact and that carbon footprint, and the kids adjust. We’ll go heavy on all the berries and watermelon in the summer, then in fall we’ll switch to those stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots, etc.). Supporting local farms can be more expensive, but again, that’s just planning your budget around that and your priorities as a program.”

Federal updates

On Sept. 27, 2022, the White House announced plans to expand access to free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032. The strategy identifies five key pillars, the first of which calls for improving food access and affordability, including by increasing access to free and nourishing school meals and providing Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) benefits to more children. Separately, the USDA announced on nearly $2 billion in additional funding to food banks and school meal programs for purchasing American-grown foods.

Islas is also the founder and executive director of Cultiva La Salud, a nonprofit based in Fresno that works to advance health equity by fostering policy, system and environmental improvements that promote healthy communities. She said these efforts to support local procurement will be a win-win for schools and communities. “The kids get fed good nutritious meals, and we have these added benefits of reducing impacts to our climate, reducing pollution, increasing investments into our local economy, supporting our local farmers and promoting healthy diets that actually prevent the onset of chronic disease.”

Alisha Kirby is a staff writer for California Schools.