Center for American Progress

Challenges and Opportunities of Providing Free School Meals for All

Challenges and Opportunities of Providing Free School Meals for All

The Center for American Progress’ community conversations with a Colorado school district illustrate how offering no-cost school meals is critical for students’ success and opportunities.

In this article
Three elementary students sit and compare lunches at a cafeteria table.
Students from Palmer Lake Elementary School eat lunch on February 28, 2022, in Monument, Colorado. (Getty/The Washington Post/Chet Strange)

This report contains a correction.

Introduction and summary

As schools across the country dive into the new academic year, ensuring students’ access to breakfast and lunch remains a pressing concern. Many teachers report that child hunger and food insecurity negatively affect students’ concentration and academic performance, as well as increase behavioral issues.1 Meanwhile, research has shown that participation in school meals has a sizable impact on students’ educational attainment.2 Access to free school meals in particular improves student health and attendance, reduces disciplinary infractions, and increases test scores among marginalized groups of students.3 Following the expiration of the pandemic-era free meal waivers, several states allocated funding to make no-cost meals available for all public school students.* As of 2023-24, eight states have implemented free meals legislation: California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, Michigan, and Massachusetts. This recent spate of legislative action represents a promising first step toward a free meal system that reaches every K-12 student in the United States—but more must be done.

The Center for American Progress connected with school meal administrators in Colorado’s Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, which has implemented no-cost meals for the past three years, to talk with critical education stakeholders—including students, educators, administrators, parents, and food service staff—about the meals’ impacts on their daily lives.

Three major themes emerged from these conversations. First and foremost, participants unanimously agreed that school meals should be served at no cost to every public school student, regardless of family income status. Second, many participants believed that food quality has worsened since the onset of the pandemic, and students in particular expressed a desire for a greater variety and diversity of food options. Finally, several participants praised the multitude of breakfast delivery options, but they also expressed concern about staff shortages, short lunch periods, and food portion sizes. These themes inspired the recommendations in the final section of this report, which are centered on equity, access, and food quality at the local, state, and national levels.

Background on Greeley-Evans

Greeley-Evans School District 6 is the 14th-largest school district in Colorado, serving approximately 22,000 students and employing approximately 2,200 full-time workers in the 2022-23 academic year across 29 schools in the northern part of the state.4 Students of color make up the majority of the district’s population: The student body is 63.8 percent Hispanic or Latino, 28.8 percent white, 2.5 percent Black or African American, 2.2 percent Asian, and 2.7 percent from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. More than 80 different languages are spoken across the district, and the graduation rate stands at 84.5 percent, slightly exceeding the state average.

Greeley-Evans is unique in that it has offered, without interruption, free school meals for all students during the past three school years. Following the expiration of the pandemic-era meal waivers just before the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year,5 the school board voted to allocate $2 million to cover the costs of school meals for every student, ensuring continued coverage indefinitely.6 In the November 2022 elections, Colorado voters passed Proposition FF, which reduced income tax deductions for taxpayers earning more than $300,000 annually in order to fund free meals for every student in the state.7 All K-12 public schools in Colorado will officially serve school meals at no cost starting fall 2024. Notably, however, Greeley-Evans was the only school district that independently maintained a universal meals system in the interim.8

Largely due to Greeley-Evans’ commitment to serving free meals to all its students, participation in school meals has seen a dramatic increase over the past few years. The district’s director of nutrition services, Danielle Bock, reported that the district served approximately 16,500 meals per day prior to the pandemic. However, in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years—when pandemic waivers were available—the district served 18,000 meals daily. In the most recent academic year, the district averaged more than 20,000 meals served per day. According to Bock’s calculations, these meals reached 94 percent of the student body in 2022-23.9

As a district uniquely dedicated to maintaining universal access to school meals, Greeley-Evans represents a valuable case study on the impact that a no-cost school meal system can have on the various stakeholders involved in public education.

CAP’s community conversations

CAP partnered with community leaders in Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6 to facilitate two conversations with 10 community participants each about the challenges students and district employees faced when implementing a permanent universal meals system following the end of the pandemic waivers. A facilitator recorded each conversation. The first conversation, which was conducted on May 10, 2023, was held at the school district’s service center and included high school students ages 14 to 18. The students attended schools across the district and were all members of the Student Health Advisory Council, an established group that meets once per month to discuss student mental and physical health as well as general well-being. The second conversation, which was held online on May 11, 2023, included adults—a combination of parents, teachers, and school lunch administrators from K-12 schools across the district.

The perspectives that participants shared informed the key themes of this report.

Themes from conversations with Greeley-Evans’ students and staff

Students, parents, and school administrators all understood the significance of serving meals at no cost, regardless of students’ financial status. It is “one less thing for the kids to worry about,” said one parent, and food service staff felt the same way. The burden of process—such as tracking down parents to sign forms, forcing students to put in a number when buying lunch, or navigating how to publicly address students’ meal debt—can be avoided through the no-cost meal plan. The district views accessible meals as a basic component of school structure: If education is compulsory, then meals should be provided. One parent said, “If they are required to be there, they deserve to be fed while they’re there.” Schools that provide free meals recognize that nutritious food enables students to optimize their ability to learn.

If they are required to be there, they deserve to be fed while they’re there. – Greeley-Evans parent

No-cost meals can benefit even students who do have the financial means to purchase meals, incentivizing them to eat the school-provided food that often has more nutritious value than “away-from-school” food.10 One parent expressed that before the pandemic, her child would use their lunch money to get fast food from places such as Burger King or the local gas station. However, once the district implemented universal meals, her child chose to eat at school. “When they didn’t have to make those choices anymore,” the parent said, “they were eating nutritious foods.” Furthermore, the parent said that she was then able to save that money and use it in more beneficial ways. At their core, no-cost meals show students that educators care about what happens to them, inside and outside the classroom.


One major theme of the community conversations was the quality and variety of food at school, as well as the lack of student voice in developing menus. Diversity of meal options makes food more accessible and serves as an opportunity to expose students to nutrition education and a wider variety of foods they may enjoy.

Variety of food options

Students described feeling tired of the two-week menu rotation, with some saying that their favorite meals are served less often, and meals they do not enjoy are offered frequently. As one student shared, “In middle school [before the pandemic], the menu would always be rotating and there would always be something different. But when I see school lunches now, it’s always the same stuff over and over.” One of the kitchen managers from the adult focus group concurred, saying that “a lot of times [the students] complain about having the same things for lunch.”

Students were also vocal about their concerns surrounding available meat alternatives, with several sharing their personal experiences trying to find meatless options that made them feel full and satisfied. One vegetarian student said that “a good 80 percent of the proteins that are available are just straight up meat. Most of the food in general has meat in it, and I don’t want to be the person to hold up the line and ask, ‘Hey, sorry, can you take the ham off the sandwich?’” Another student shared:

On the days when it’s a burger, people who don’t eat meat are left with a sunbutter [an alternative nut butter made from sunflower seeds] sandwich. With a burger, you’re gonna get more to eat. And not a lot of people would enjoy eating the sunbutter sandwich, but they can’t have the hamburger option.

The consequence of this lack of meal variety is that some students refuse to eat. During the pandemic, Greeley-Evans moved to an in-class meals service model at some of its schools to minimize large-group interactions in the cafeteria. School administrators then noticed that many students were taking the food but throwing it away. Other schools across the country have reported similar findings; feeding kids for free is pointless if they do not eat the food.11 As one high school teacher pointed out, “It got to the point where we were force-feeding kids, and we saw a lot of waste. … They would take the food and throw it away.” Giving students options increases the likelihood that they will find at least part of their meal appealing and thus feel encouraged to eat the food. To promote meal choice, school administrators mentioned that Greeley-Evans food service staff hope to switch to a four-week meal rotation schedule this fall, giving students a wider variety of meals over a longer period of time before the cycle repeats.

Diversity of food options

One Catholic student shared that they struggle with eating school meals specifically during the month of April, when their religion precludes eating meat on Fridays, saying, “I think it would be a little more inclusive to give other options besides meat … because Fridays are usually the fun food that people do want to eat, and then we’re left with [the sunbutter sandwich].” The student also shared, “It’d be nice to have different cultural foods or even more religiously based stuff because I know there’s some food that my friend can’t eat because he’s Muslim.” The lack of cultural diversity in food options came up throughout the conversations with both students and adults. Both specifically brought up the idea of having culturally themed lunches during the holiday season. This would not only address students’ dietary needs during religious or cultural holidays, but it would also create opportunities for students to learn about different cultures and engage with different foods they may have never tried before, as well as diversify menus throughout the year.

It’d be nice to have different cultural foods or even more religiously based stuff because I know there’s some food that my friend can’t eat because he’s Muslim. – Greeley-Evans student

School staff can attest to the power of culturally engaging food options. In the Greeley-Evans School District, students have frequently requested food items such as pupusas, tostadas, empanadas, and menudo instead of—or in addition to—the standard American fare offered almost every day, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and grilled cheese sandwiches. One school administrator discussed serving students pupusas, a dish served in Salvadoran cuisine. And an elementary school teacher shared how students who knew the dish because of their cultural background were excited about it and enjoyed telling their friends how it is made, saying, “It’s a cultural experience for all the kids. … And I think that’s important.” Serving more culturally relevant foods can increase students’ knowledge of other cultures; promote inclusivity among diverse student populations; and reduce stigma around exoticized food, promoting their inclusion in what is considered a standard healthy diet.12

Food quality

Students also believed that the quality and freshness of food had worsened since the onset of the pandemic. One student said that “since COVID, I really think the quality [of the food] has declined.” Another went into more detail:

I saw more healthier things, and then after COVID it turned to hot wings, chicken nuggets, burgers, hot dogs, and all those processed [foods]. Our breakfasts were really prepared, but now we always get the same stuff, and it’s always packaged all the time. I would say because there’s less healthier options [the quality of food has] declined.

While the students understood that prepackaged, individually wrapped food items were safer to prepare and serve during the pandemic, this ultimately alienated several of them from school meals, especially breakfast.

Adult participants recognized this issue as well. Like most districts across the country, Greeley-Evans has struggled with labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and rising food and equipment costs.13 For example, one of the district’s nutrition services specialists shared that the price of a box of gloves for cafeteria workers has quadrupled in recent years.14 And a kitchen manager explained:

We’re kind of restricted on what we can even offer. We have to meet certain nutritional standards. Sugar content, sodium content—they have to be low, but we have to have a certain amount of grains and meat or meat alternatives and things like that. So that does kind of limit us, and also how we’re able to procure those things, what companies we can find them through for the 15,000 kids we might be feeding in a given day.

Despite these challenges, school food service staff and other school community members remain committed to serving students food they like to eat and elevating student voice in meal planning. The district’s website provides a form for students to leave open-ended feedback on the school meal menu, including food requests.15 When asked how the school meal system could be improved, one elementary school teacher said, “I think more student voice would be cool. … I think they would enjoy having a say in some of the options, even just letting us know what they don’t enjoy as much so then maybe there won’t be as much waste. … Just normalizing their voice in their food options.” A kitchen manager agreed, observing that “a little more feedback from the classroom would be helpful to reduce the waste at breakfast.” One high school teacher proposed holding a competition of sorts in which teams of students could create a “U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved meal,” and the winner could be featured on the district menu. A student also suggested that middle schoolers and high schoolers could be given opportunities to earn community service hours by helping the district make fresh meals from scratch.

I think they would enjoy having a say in some of the options, even just letting us know what they don’t enjoy as much so then maybe there won’t be as much waste. – Greeley-Evans teacher

Food service

The final theme of the community conversations was the food service delivery system itself. Students and school staff alike praised the multitude of breakfast delivery options, but they voiced concern over short lunch periods and small portion sizes.

Expanded breakfast delivery models

Both focus groups brought up the importance of making breakfast more accessible to students. Adults more frequently mentioned the high participation rates associated with bringing breakfast items directly to classrooms, a practice most common in elementary schools. One kitchen manager claimed, “Breakfast in the classroom is a captive audience. You get high numbers with that.” High school students described the value of “grab-and-go” breakfast kiosks located in the hallways. As one student explained, “They do serve breakfast in carts, so they have one cart in every single entrance, so then [students] walk in and they can grab food if they want to, and if they don’t, they walk by.” Another added:

Before COVID, I don’t remember the breakfast cart ever being there. Like in middle and elementary school, breakfast was just not a thing. But during COVID was the year that we actually started having a breakfast option.

A third student observed that “our school is different because they also offer second period breakfast, so even if you’re late and you have to get to class, you can go [get breakfast] through passing period. And if you do that, you’re allowed to eat in our classrooms.” Clearly, allowing the students to have quick breakfast options, and to eat in classrooms, increases the likelihood that students eat the school-provided breakfast.

At lunchtime, it is full-on chaos getting near 700 through the line with three to four staff members in a matter of two hours. – Greeley-Evans school teacher
Short lunch periods

Both conversation groups mentioned the struggles associated with short, hurried lunch periods. High school students decried the long lines that took precious time away from eating, while kitchen workers reported feeling overwhelmed with rapidly serving high numbers of students as well as the quick turnaround time between lunch periods. An elementary school teacher commented:

I wonder about the pressure on our staff being impacted by the schedule that we have for lunch, how fast we are getting groups of kids through lunch. … They have very short amounts of time, like one to two minutes, to clean up real quick. And so, as they’re serving kids, they’re also restocking their plates or their trays to get them out to the next group of kids. I cannot imagine the stress. … At lunchtime, it is full-on chaos getting near 700 through the line with three to four staff members in a matter of two hours.

The kitchen staff involved in the conversation all agreed with this assessment, and one kitchen specialist shared her own story:

I do work in a middle and high school now, but I have been in that elementary environment. … The scheduling is rather hectic and chaotic and crazy for elementary schools. Lord knows the kitchen staff would appreciate just a skosh more time. How many kids we’re feeding in such a short, small period of time, you gotta be able to just move, move, move, move, move. … We’re working on getting all of our staffing needs met so that everyone can run just as smooth as humanly possible in all of our elementary schools. In the high schools it’s not quite so chaotic—still chaotic, just not quite so chaotic. But yeah, having all the kiddos come in at those different lunchtimes, it’s a very well-orchestrated mess of chaos and fun.

When asked what could be improved about the current school meal system, one kitchen manager simply said, “To have a longer lunch period, that’s what lunch ladies would wish for, that the kids would have more time to actually eat.” Concerns over short, rushed lunch periods were a major theme in CAP’s conversation with educators, community members, school administrators, and food service workers.

Small portion sizes

Almost every student mentioned that the portion sizes were too small and that they often felt that they did not have the funds to pay for a second portion. One student explained that “pizza is very popular at my school, and people just get one slice of pizza, and that’s all they get. … There isn’t a lot there, and to have to pay to get another slice is a deterrent.” No-cost meals are ineffective if students do not have enough to eat. Teachers added that if students are still hungry after lunch, their ability to learn is negatively affected; they are less able to pay attention and are often tired or sluggish. Many studies have found that students who do not have enough to eat during the day have worse learning outcomes, with disproportionate impacts for students who have compounding forms of stress in school or at home that may make them feel out of control.16

Increasing portion sizes and allowing students to return for more food if they are still hungry would empower students and secure their sense of dignity. Many Greeley-Evans school leaders recognize this reality and made second portions available even prior to the start of the pandemic. An elementary school teacher explained:

[The lunch staff] never refuse kids extra helpings. … [Even] if a kiddo brings a home lunch, they can always go get a milk. … That makes the kids feel like they have more power. … They still deserve the dignity of being able to [get a drink].

Allowing students to feel like they have the ability to choose whether they eat at school and how much they eat—without shame or guilt—gives them confidence that they can carry into other aspects of their education.17

Recommendations for instituting free school meals

These meaningful community conversations shed light on a variety of ongoing challenges and opportunities related to school meal programming. The following recommendations present ideas for making meals more accessible at the school and district levels, as well as a central framework for establishing a national system of no-cost school meals at the federal level.

Recommendations for schools and districts

1. Offer a greater variety of food options whenever possible

Although many schools are limited in what they can offer due to ongoing supply chain disruptions and rising food costs,18 menu variety is an essential consideration for students eating meals at school. Students in Greeley-Evans specifically requested more meat alternatives, culturally relevant food items, and menu rotation periods that are longer than two weeks. And while the students did not mention this, providing meals accessible to people with different levels of dietary restrictions—due to chronic conditions, for example—is essential to creating comprehensive menus. Furthermore, students and school staff alike brought up the importance of giving students opportunities to participate in the menu-setting process. Avenues for including student input in school meal systems could include online feedback forms, physical suggestion boxes, student advisory groups, and social media campaigns such as the Elevate Student Voice in School Meals Campaign organized by District of Columbia Public Schools.19 Student engagement in setting menus is critical for mitigating food waste and expanding participation in school meal programs.

2. Foster local partnerships to ensure that food is of high quality

Schools and districts should take advantage of grant programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Farm to School Grants,20 and state-level funding opportunities in order to foster connections with community and regional food producers. These connections support local economies and help minimize many challenges associated with the food supply chain, such as long-haul transportation.

Without expanded support from state and federal governments, however, rising food costs and labor shortages will continue to impede school food operations.21 Districts must be fully transparent about their struggles with food service in order to build coalitions with parents and community members to advocate for necessary supports from government.

3. Expand meal service models

Multiple students brought up the positive differences that alternative breakfast delivery models have made in their lives. Grab-and-go kiosks in the hallways, second-chance breakfast, and breakfast in the classroom are three proven methods that schools and districts should pursue to expand access to food and ultimately promote better learning conditions in the classroom.22 A recent review of 37 studies showed that these types of “breakfast after the bell” interventions increased breakfast participation and improved both diet quality and classroom behavior, particularly for students from low-income and/or racially marginalized backgrounds.23 A variety of grant opportunities exist for districts and schools hoping to secure funding to expand meal service models and increase breakfast participation, including the USDA’s School Breakfast Program Expansion Grants,24 as well as the No Kid Hungry and Kellogg School Breakfast grants.25 Many states also have grant programs available focused on expanding school breakfast delivery.

4. Lengthen lunch periods and hire more staff, as scheduling and capacity allow

Educators, food service staff, and students all lamented the negative impacts of the lunchtime rush on school meal participation, eating time, and student and staff stress levels. At least 20 minutes of seated eating time is linked with better student nutrition,26 as well as fostering a stronger sense of belonging among students.27 Problems associated with short, hectic lunch periods are exacerbated by widespread staffing shortages in school kitchens: In August 2022, 37 percent of U.S. schools surveyed in the School Pulse Panel reported being understaffed when it came to food and nutrition service workers, especially in schools located in the Midwest and the West.28 At the elementary level, studies have shown that scheduling recess before lunch allows children to build up an appetite and subsequently decreases plate waste.29

Although scheduling regulations are strict in many states,30 schools and districts should work within existing requirements to provide more time for serving and eating lunch, as well as advocate for state support in hiring and retaining food service workers. In the short term, some schools have been forced to hire students to serve lunch or to order takeout from local restaurants to cover gaps.31

5. Address student concerns with portion sizes

School meal portion sizes were a major theme in the community conversation with students, many of whom wished they had the option to ask for more food on their trays or return for second helpings. While several food workers in the adult community conversation expressed their willingness to give students extra helpings upon request, students may be uncertain about the rules and apprehensive about being denied more servings. Schools and districts should make second portions available to hungry students, especially when it comes to serving fruits and vegetables. Additionally, information on school serving policies should be clearly and consistently distributed to students and families to raise awareness and minimize confusion.

A few students suggested that cafeterias could be set up with buffet-style tables where they can serve themselves, similar to university dining halls. While this may not be feasible given the USDA nutrition guidelines and school capacity, Greeley-Evans does offer a self-serve salad bar option that all students in its schools can visit.32 Salad bars are proven to be effective at increasing students’ fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as reducing plate waste.33 Another potential solution is the use of “share tables,” or separate cafeteria stations where students can leave food items they do not intend to eat for other students to take.34 This can also be an effective method for ensuring that all students get enough to eat while reducing unnecessary food waste.

Recommendations for states and the federal government

1. Offer free school meals for all public school students

The most effective and equitable solution to food insecurity at school is for the federal government to eliminate eligibility and pricing requirements for free school meals and reimburse schools for the full cost of providing every meal they serve. Although a limited number of states have already implemented no-cost school meal programs, these initiatives are ultimately constrained by federal requirements. Students at most schools are still required to complete meal application forms so that the federal government will reimburse their state at three separate rates of pricing—free meals, reduced-price meals, and fully family-funded meals. The federal government should consider the Universal School Meals Program Act a blueprint for implementing free school meals for every student.35 This bill, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), would enable every child in a federally funded school to receive hot breakfast and lunch at no cost. Additionally, the act would raise the federal reimbursement rate for school meals to address higher food costs, as well as offer additional incentives for schools that get food from locally grown sources.

Opponents of free school meals often argue for a more incremental approach than simply eliminating eligibility and pricing requirements—for example, slowly but steadily expanding the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to include more high-need schools.36 Supporters, however, assert that the creation of the CEP itself was an incremental step toward universal meals and that pandemic waivers have already furthered this transition.37 Forcing schools to go back to family-funded, including reduced-price, meal systems is needlessly regressive, and the natural and necessary progression of previous legislation is a fully funded free meal system provided by the federal government. No-cost meals are also politically popular: Support for these programs among American adults ranges between 63 percent and 86 percent in surveys from the Food Research and Action Center,38 the Urban Institute,39 and the National Parents Union.40

2. Expand schools’ capacity to serve meals, particularly meals that make sense for districts’ unique student populations

Government must expand school equipment and nutrition operation grants for districts and schools that need additional assistance to serve students more meals. Experts expect student meal participation to increase slowly rather than all at once, which will create a natural transition period for school nutrition directors to plan ahead effectively. However, many schools will inevitably face issues related to food storage, safe refrigeration, and kitchen capacity.

The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act (H.R. 8450), which was introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), takes a meaningful approach to this issue by proposing a $35 million authorization per year for discretionary funding that would allow schools to improve kitchen infrastructure and purchase the equipment and technology needed to serve healthy meals in a safe manner.41 Furthermore, the federal government can expand existing grant programs that support school nutrition operations, such as the National School Lunch Program Equipment Assistance Grants.42 Effective implementation of a nationwide free meals program will be impossible without the necessary supports for safe and healthy food preparation and distribution.

Additionally, the federal government should create expanded guidance on meat-free and culturally relevant dishes that meet students’ nutritional needs while ensuring that students feel included and accepted at school. Both Congress and state governments must recognize that making menu transitions is no easy feat for school districts and should provide them incentives and funding opportunities to do so. For example, California’s 2022–2023 state budget allocated $100 million in one-time funding to support school districts in providing plant-based and restrictive-diet meals, including through the use of locally grown produce and preparation of fresh meals onsite.43 At the federal level, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act proposes a pilot grant program for serving 100 percent plant-based food options.44 For culturally relevant food options, the federal government could look into providing a centralized clearinghouse of recipes from a variety of cultures—all compliant with nutrition guidelines—that school districts could easily access when creating their menus, similar to the Child Nutrition Recipe Box from the Institute of Child Nutrition.45

3. Develop new, comprehensive measures of student socioeconomic status to replace free and reduced-price meal eligibility and eliminate the need for school meal applications

States that have already implemented no-cost school meal programs will have limited success in systemically changing the application process without federal intervention. This is because both state and federal legislation often rely on free and reduced-price school meal eligibility as an indicator of student socioeconomic status, which helps determine critical supports that schools receive, such as Title I funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act.46 Because a universal system would eliminate the need for school meal applications, Congress must develop new and expanded indicators of student socioeconomic status to meet federal funding purposes.

Many researchers and education activists have pointed out that free and reduced-price meal eligibility is already an imperfect measure of student socioeconomic status, especially since the passage of the CEP dropped the reporting requirements for some schools in high-poverty areas, making these determinations more difficult.47 While no single measure can accurately capture the totality of students’ socioeconomic experiences, the National Forum on Education Statistics has proposed numerous other measures that governments could use in tandem, such as household income, student/family categorical status, eligibility for other means-tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid, parent/guardian educational and occupational status, neighborhood socioeconomic status, and school district poverty estimates derived from U.S. decennial census data.48 To effectively address food insecurity and equitably measure student poverty, the federal government should incentivize states to end school meal applications and collect a broader range of data on families’ circumstances.


The community conversations with members of the Greeley-Evans school district attest to the critical importance of free school meals for all while also highlighting remaining opportunities for improving food quality, expanding available food options, addressing ongoing capacity challenges, and including student voice in menu development. While Colorado and seven other states have taken decisive action to provide no-cost school meals to all of their public school students, the work of addressing student food insecurity and creating healthy learning conditions is far from complete. Schools, districts, and states must continue the vital work of expanding and strengthening school meal programs. However, systemic change must originate with the federal government. Until Congress and the executive branch enact meaningful legislation to eliminate eligibility requirements and transform school data reporting, free school meals will remain limited to the few, not the many.


The authors would like to thank Danielle Bock, Johanna Bishop, and Rachel Hurshman from Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6’s Nutrition Services for their thoughtful community conversation facilitation. Additionally, the authors would like to thank Nadia Davis from the School Nutrition Association for connecting them to the district, as well as the participants of both community conversations for their willingness to share their experiences and ideas. Finally, the authors thank CAP staff members Madeline Shepherd, Emma Lofgren, Paige Shoemaker Demio, Tania Otero Martinez, Lisette Partelow, and Jared Bass for their valuable contributions to this report.

*Correction, September 26, 2023: This report has been updated to clarify that not all states with universal meal systems have committed to providing meals beyond the 2023-24 school year.


  1. No Kid Hungry, “How Does Hunger Affect Learning?”, April 24, 2023, available at
  2. Allie Pearce, Akilah Alleyne, and Anona Neal, “5 States Addressing Child Hunger and Food Insecurity With Free School Meals for All” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2023), available at
  3. Ibid.
  4. Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, “District 6 by the Numbers,” available at (last accessed September 2023); Danielle Bock, director of nutrition services, Greeley-Evans School District 6, personal communication with authors via email, May 17, 2023, on file with authors.
  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, “Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers,” available at (last accessed September 2023).
  6. Sonia Gutierrez, “Colorado school districts are back to charging for lunches. Except for one.”, Rocky Mountain PBS, September 19, 2022, available at
  7. Sonia Gutierrez, “Update: Colorado voters approve free school lunches for all students,” Rocky Mountain PBS, November 9, 2022, available at
  8. Sonia Gutierrez, “Colorado school districts are back to charging for lunches. Except for one.”, Rocky Mountain PBS, September 19, 2022, available at; Danielle Bock, director of nutrition services, Greeley-Evans School District 6, personal communication with authors via email, May 17, 2023, on file with authors.
  9. Danielle Bock, director of nutrition services, Greeley-Evans School District 6, personal communication with authors via email, May 17, 2023, on file with authors.
  10. Pourya Valizadeh and Shu Wen Ng, “The New School Food Standards and Nutrition of School Children: Direct and Indirect Effect Analysis,” Economics & Human Biology 39 (2020), available at
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  12. G. Daniela Galarza, “Stop calling food ‘exotic,’” The Washington Post, July 8, 2021, available at
  13. Nik Popli, “School Meal Prices Are Rising—And That Could Leave Kids Hungry,” TIME, August 15, 2022, available at
  14. Sara Ruberg, “The broken business of feeding America’s schoolchildren,” NBC News, March 4, 2023, available at; Alexa Gagosz and Brian Amaral, “Restaurant supplies — like takeout boxes, cups, and gloves — are in high demand, and more expensive than ever,” The Boston Globe, available at (last accessed September 2023).
  15. Greeley-Evans School District 6 Nutrition Services, “School Food,” available at (last accessed September 2023).
  16. University of Utah Health, “Lack of Food Can Affect a Child’s Learning Abilities,” Healthy Kids Zone, December 18, 2018, available at; Heather Hartline-Grafton and Madeleine Levin, “Breakfast and School-Related Outcomes in Children and Adolescents in the US: A Literature Review and its Implications for School Nutrition Policy,” Current Nutrition Reports 11 (4): 653–664, available at; Qwamel Hanks, “School Meal Participation Contributes to Positive Mental Health Outcomes” (Washington: Food Research & Action Center, 2018), available at
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  18. Popli, “School Meal Prices Are Rising—And That Could Leave Kids Hungry.”
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Allie Pearce

Former Policy Analyst

Anona Neal

Former Research Associate, Inclusive Economy


K-12 Education Policy

The K-12 Education Policy team is committed to developing policies for a new education agenda rooted in principles of opportunity for all and equity in access.

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