ASU research helps result in free school meals for low-income students

Group of young students eating together at a table.

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School-age children across the state of Arizona will receive free meals this upcoming school year thanks in part to research compiled by Arizona State University’s Food Policy and Environmental Research Group.

In early June, the Arizona Legislature passed a budget that included $3.8 million in general funds to provide free school meals for low-income children attending public and charter schools.

It was the first time in the state’s history that general funding has been used to support school meals.

“It’s very satisfying when you see evidence-informed policy being implemented,” said Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a professor of nutrition in ASU's College of Health Solutions and the head of the Food Policy and Environmental Research Group, which explores policies and programs that impact food consumption, physical activity, behaviors and health outcomes specifically related to childhood and adult obesity. “And I think across all the years that I’ve been working, this is the fastest I’ve seen research being turned into policy.”

In 2022, the Arizona Food Bank Network contacted ASU’s food policy group, which began in 2010 and comprises ASU faculty, postdoctoral students, graduate and undergraduate students.

A series of waivers that had covered the cost of meals during the pandemic was expiring, and the Food Bank Network wanted ASU’s group to assess the cost estimate for covering reduced price co-pays — 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast that families within a certain income threshold are required to pay for those meals — and to conduct a survey of parents, school officials and community members.

The survey was answered by more than 2,300 parents and 1,300 members of the school community who were reached through six Arizona school districts and other grassroots organizations, using what Ohri-Vachaspati called a “snowball sampling technique.”

Respondents were asked about the benefit of school meals, the free meal policy that was in place during the pandemic, and about the possibility of implementing the same policy once the waivers had ended.

Sarah Martinelli, a clinical associate professor in the College of Health Solutions and a member of the food policy research group, said the overwhelming percentage of respondents strongly supported maintaining free meals for students.

“We asked people to report things like their political affiliation, their education level, their income, all of that, and the support was consistent among those groups,” Martinelli said.

Martinelli said several factors were mentioned in support of continuing free meals. Parents cited the “tremendous amount of stress” that goes into planning and preparing meals. Food service staff members said free meals would preclude them from having to do the least favorite part of their job — collecting money from students. Teachers said that they felt the need to provide and pay for food for their students once the COVID waivers ended.

“Teachers are overburdened in a lot of different ways, and so while they felt the strong need to do that, they also felt that burden,” Martinelli said. “So anytime students are getting more access to food, that’s in a way reducing some of the burden on teachers to do that feeding in the classroom.”

Ohri-Vachaspati said it was also important to emphasize in their findings that school meals are the healthiest type of food that children eat during the school day.

“These meals, their nutrition quality has improved,” she said. “And they’re going to improve further because the school meal requirements have been revamped. There’s a long way to go to make them super nutritious, but they are among the healthiest food that most children have access to. So if we can provide these meals to more children, there are nutritional benefits and health benefits both at the individual level and the community level.”

Using the survey information, the Arizona Food Bank Network secured funding for the co-pays from January 2023 to June 2024 using COVID relief dollars.

With the temporary funding ending after the 2023–24 school year, the food bank worked with the state Legislature to get the $3.8 million added to the state budget. Martinelli said she’s not sure how many meals the $3.8 million will pay for, but April Bradham, president and CEO of the Arizona Food Bank Network, said in a press release that the co-pays covered more than 7 million meals during the 2023–24 school year.

Patti Bilbrey, president of the School Nutrition Association of Arizona and director of nutrition services for the Scottsdale Unified School District, called the state reimbursement a “game changer.”

“When federal resources expired at the end of the school year, we worried about having to go back to our families and students to explain that they’d have to start paying again,” Bilbrey said. “They’re barely making ends meet as it is, and 70 cents a day for multiple kids adds up.”

At the request of the food bank, ASU’s food policy group is continuing its research, evaluating the implementation of the covered co-pays and the impact on students and their families.

“We are delighted that this made it into this year’s budget,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “That is phenomenal. But we want this to be a recurring thing, because nothing is worse than changing policy from year to year. ... We want this policy to be consistent moving forward.”

A policy that ASU helped create.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve done in my job for sure,” Martinelli said. “Getting to see our research become actionable in the broader community is really exciting.”

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