For school nutrition teams, universal free meals pack some surprises

From dramatic jumps in participation to fewer free and reduced applications, K-12 operators in California and Maine share what they encountered during their first year of serving free meals for all.
Students eating lunch at school
Operators who have begun universal free programs have seen participation increase. | Photo: Shutterstock

Last fall, the nutrition team at Mt. Blue Regional School District in Farmington, Maine, began serving all students for free as part of the state’s new universal free feeding program. 

While Director Andrew Hutchins expected his meal participation rate to increase, he was shocked by how many students took advantage of the program. 

“If I can get to a 3% increase [in participation] year over year, I'm happy. That’s a pretty healthy increase,” he says. 

But once his district started universal free, participation jumped “18% to 20% every month looking year over year,” he said.

While Hutchins was delighted to see more students taking part in school meals, that leap did cause logistical challenges for his team, which was not used to a rapid increase in meal counts. 

Such participation hikes are a challenge many K-12 operators across the country could face this fall, as nine states now have legislation in place to provide meals at no charge to all students.

Support for universal free meals has grown since the early days of the pandemic, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued waivers allowing schools across the country to feed all students for free, regardless of their family income. After those waivers expired last June, some states have opted to continue the free meals temporarily, while others have made them a permanent fixture of the school day.

Controlling crowds 

One of the first things Hutchins did to handle the influx of students coming through the lunch line was increase staff members and their hours. 

“We were in a position, luckily, where many of our staff are working 30 to 32 hours a week,” he says. “So we had some wiggle room with still being able to keep people out of overtime.” 

While his team likes to prepare as many scratch-made dishes as possible, it ended up purchasing more convenience items last year, such as pre-sheeted pizza dough, to help reduce meal prep time. As staff members continue to get more comfortable with higher participation, they hope to gradually reinstate more scratch-made meals. 

Over in California, San Leandro Unified School District also saw participation increase during its first year of universal free meals. While its increase was not as extreme as Mt. Blue due to its student body having a higher free and reduced rate, Nutrition Director Clell Hoffman did implement some changes to move students through the line faster.  

One thing that helped a lot, he says, was creating a pocket chart system that enables students to “check out” faster. Each cafeteria entrance now has a pocket chart that holds cards for students; every card includes a bar code and a colored dot to help identify them. Students pick up their card as they enter the cafeteria and hand it to the employee behind the counter when they receive their food. They are then able to immediately sit down and eat. 

“[Once students] hand it to the person serving lunch, and they either scan it right there, or they put it in a basket and scan it later,” says Hoffman. 

Along with eliminating the need for students to stand in an extra line to check out after they receive their meal, the system also freed up an employee who would traditionally be working at the point of sale.  

At the high school, the team also added measures at its popular pizza and sushi stations, which suffered from overcrowding and students cutting in line. 

“A lot of times, kids would get in the line and then get to the front, and we run out of that food, so we started handing out those butcher numbers you get when you go to the butcher shop,” says Hoffman. “So as the kids would get in line, for example, we knew that we had like 150 pieces of pizza, so we had about 150 tickets. You had to have a ticket to get a piece of pizza and it had to be in the right order, so they couldn't cut.”

The tickets kept the lines more orderly and gave students who missed out on tickets enough time to decide on something else to eat, Hoffman says, resulting in a more pleasant cafeteria experience.

“Kids are our customers,” he says. “Just like in a restaurant, if they have some kind of bad experience, they're not going to come back and you need to treat them as such.”

Meal application confusion 

Another challenge for Hoffman and his team was dealing with changes to the way they collect free and reduced-price meal applications.  

During the pandemic, San Leandro and many other districts in the state began using student information systems to qualify students for free or reduced-price meals. At the start of the school year, parents and guardians use these programs to enter their income and the number of people in their household, eliminating the need for families to fill out a free or reduced meal application. 

Although some families have continued completing the traditional applications in addition to entering their information into the system, the overall number of applications has dropped significantly, said Hoffman. 

While the loss of applications does not affect which students eat for free due to the state’s passage of universal free meals, it has impacted the district’s ability to qualify for other federal feeding programs since the USDA does not recognize the data entered in the student information systems. 

Last year, for example, all 12 schools in the district qualified for the federal Child and Adult Care Feeding Program, which provides an after-school snack or supper to students; this year, only seven of the schools qualified. 

“Because people aren't filling out these applications, it's going to affect our ability to have these other programs possibly,” says Hoffman. 

Having a plan B

As the team at Mt. Blue heads into their second year of universal feeding, Hutchins feels confident and prepared to handle another year of higher participation. His advice for operators who will begin their journey with universal feeding in the coming weeks is to be ready to make changes as needed. 

To that end, he also recommends operators keep tabs on their participation numbers and other metrics daily, so they have real-time data to guide them in their decision-making. 

“Just because you think plan A is going to work, always have a plan B in your pocket,” he says. “I can't stress that enough. […] When you open up for universal feeding, it’s a whole new ballgame.”



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