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ASU report contributes to expansion of free meal program for students

Arizona Department of Education cites College of Health Solutions report

Young student carrying lunch tray of food
December 27, 2022

Thanks in part to findings published by professors in Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, thousands of Arizona school children will receive free meals through the 2023–24 school year.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced earlier this month that the Arizona Department of Education will use $6.75 million in pandemic relief funds to waive meal fees for students who do not already qualify for federally funded free meals. 

Hoffman cited a report from the Food Policy and Environment Research Group at the College of Health Solutions, which assessed the costs of expanding the free meal program and the benefits of making meals more accessible.

The report was headed by Sarah Martinelli, a clinical associate professor at the College of Health Solutions. ASU News talked to Martinelli about the report’s findings and why Hoffman’s announcement is personally significant.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: How did ASU’s involvement in this come about?

Answer: (The report) was commissioned by the Arizona Food Bank Network. The Food Bank Network’s primary goal is to increase food access for all Arizonans. One method they wanted to explore for that was, of course, expansion to school meals. So, they had an open request for proposals, and we submitted for that.

Q: What we’re talking about, essentially, is thousands of families that would have had to pay for meals don’t have to through the end of the next school year, correct?

A: Yes. The school meals program operates on what we call a three-tiered system and a means-based system. There’s the free tier where families are not paying for anything. Those families earn less than 130% of the federal poverty line. People in the reduced-price category earn between 131% and 185% of federal poverty guidelines. As the report states, to put that in perspective, that’s a family of four making between $36,000 and $51,000 or so annually. That’s not sustainable in today’s world. Those families pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. So, essentially, what the state is doing is they’re going to pay those co-pays for its families for the next year and a half.

Q: That doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking every school day for a family of four it adds up.

A: Absolutely. One of the most interesting results I think that we got from our survey of Arizona residents was that consistently people were saying, “Look, I make just over the guideline, but I can’t afford to necessarily provide the lunch for my kids every single day.”

Q: It seems like the expansion will be particularly beneficial to single-parent families in the sense it not only saves money but perhaps reduces their stress level.

A: Just having that secure access to a meal for that student makes a difference. There were these families that were like, “Look, we can afford school meals and we’ll pay them if we have to, but the idea that we don’t have to stress about it was a huge relief to my family. I had more time with my kids and less stress about packing and all that.” I think that’s a pretty interesting finding for busy working families.

Q: Did you examine the impact in rural communities as opposed to urban areas?

A: We really wanted to examine rural versus urban, but we had a hard time ultimately getting a lot of feedback from rural residents. So, it’s hard to say in terms of their perceptions. But we had one food service director that we interviewed from a rural area who basically said these kids do not have another option. There’s not even a grocery store within miles and miles and miles. She sees herself as really the main food option for a lot of her families.

Q: Your assessment was done by looking at articles reviewed by the national program Healthy Eating Research (HER). What did that assessment convey in terms of how expanding this program will help students academically?

A: (HER) looked at things like reading scores or math scores and attendance, which is not directly tied to academic performance but contributes to it. The increases in scores (for students who received meals) are generally not huge, but they do tend to be bigger in those lower-income groups.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: It might be tied to attendance. Kids are in school more because that access to food is an added benefit for them to go.

Q: This is sort of a simple question: It must have made you feel good to know your team’s report is helping more kids get fed in school?

A: I was a child who relied on school meals. And as I went through my program at ASU as a master’s student, I quickly learned educating the world about what’s healthy only goes so far, that this idea of access and the ability to even put your hands on healthy foods is such a big issue. I was able to connect that to my childhood and things I dealt with. So, for me, this is monumental, something that really connects what I do to what I believe in. It’s been amazing to be a part of it.

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