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Approaches to Addressing Food Insecurity in School Settings

This model focuses on addressing food insecurity, which describes the lack of or limited access to food, in school settings. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified four levels of food security:

  1. High food security: no indications of food limitations
  2. Marginal food security: some anxiety around food sufficiency
  3. Low food security: reduced quality and desirability of food options, though no reduction in food intake
  4. Very low food security: eating patterns and food intake are disrupted

Food assistance programs help reimburse school meals for children of low-income families, such as the School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), National School Lunch Program, and Summer Food Service Program. There are federal requirements about what types of food will be reimbursed and who can receive free or reduced-price meals. These programs decrease the amount of time between meals for students with low food access and/or security at home. Providing nutritional meals and snacks can help students retain the information they learned during the school day.

School Breakfast

School breakfast programs provide a first meal for many students. These programs decrease the amount of time between meals for students with low food access and/or security at home. School breakfast has been shown to increase attendance, decrease tardiness, and provide quality nutrition to students who may not have eaten since lunch the day before. This meal can be federally reimbursed and qualifies for free and reduced pricing structures. Breakfast can be offered before school, in the classroom after the first bell, or at a specified break time during the school day. Program design differs with the needs and resources of the school and the community.

School Lunch

School lunch programs are a mainstay in meeting the food needs of rural school-aged children during the school year.

Afterschool Meals

Afterschool meals are provided after the school day but during a supervised, educational activity. Afterschool meals are normally implemented through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) or the National School Lunch Program. CACFP is a federal program that allows schools and other local agencies to provide a meal to students after the school day ends. Afterschool meals can range from snacks to larger supper portions. Programs are eligible for CACFP if:

  • They participate in the National School Lunch Program
  • At least 50% of students in the attendance areas are eligible for free or reduced-price meals
  • Meals follow nutritional guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Backpack Food Program Models

Backpack food programs aim to close the gap in meals for children between Friday lunch and Monday breakfast by providing food for children over weekends as well as for longer breaks during the school year. Backpack programs are typically implemented with assistance from a sponsor, such as a food bank or local business. Sponsors can help provide supplies, administrative work, and/or financial assistance. Most large food banks, such as Feeding America branches, have backpack food programs in place and might consider expanding their programs to reach smaller, rural schools in their area. Eligibility is determined by the school or program coordinator and is usually based on faculty and staff reports of hunger and household food insecurity.

Summer Meals

Summer meals are lunches provided to students at little or no cost during the summer break. This program increases access to food throughout summer months for students who rely on school meals. The summer food program operates similarly to the school lunch program and school breakfast program, with schools receiving reimbursement from the federal government for eligible foods. Many variations of this model exist. Some schools connect with other rural schools in the area and set up a mobile summer food truck. Communities can also partner with food banks to help implement the program. Each state has a designated agency (usually the state agriculture or education department) with state-specific requirements for operating the program.

School Food Pantries

Food pantries, also known as food shelves, provide food to hungry people with limited resources. In this model, schools devote space specifically for a food pantry to provide relief to hungry students and staff. The school stocks shelf-stable foods, fruits, and vegetables to help students receive necessary food in a confidential manner. The pantry is accessible to eligible students, faculty, and staff during the school year, and food is provided at no charge. Pantries in middle and high schools can help keep students in school by relieving pressure to provide food for their families by working full-time. School food pantries save students time and money by removing the need to take another trip to a different food pantry.

Additional Options for Families

Another key strategy for addressing food insecurity is providing financial assistance to low-income individuals and families to help them buy food. There are two commonly used federal programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provide money to eligible participants to purchase food only:

Examples of School-Based Food Assistance Programs for Improving Food Insecurity

  • The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students for no cost. Schools are eligible for CEP if at least 40% of students are certified for free meals without applying through household applications such as being from a household with SNAP or WIC.
  • In 2015, Hoquiam School District implemented a breakfast model to serve more students breakfast every morning. In the district's three elementary schools, they now serve breakfast in the classroom after the first bell, serving nearly 400 more breakfasts per month. The high school also offers a “second chance” breakfast between first and second period that allows students to eat, even if they missed the first breakfast. Additionally, through the Community Eligibility Provision, all elementary and middle school students can eat breakfast and lunch for free. By serving all students free breakfast and lunch, student “lunch debt” is removed, administrative burden is reduced, and more students eat breakfast and lunch. By using a combination of models, Hoquiam School District can feed more students and keep their operation costs down.
  • For nearly 40 years, Florida Impact has helped communities across Florida access and implement federally funded child nutrition programs. Its goal is to provide support to organizations and help establish sustainable food programs. Florida Impact works with community members and organizations and promotes collaboration among groups. It has helped increase the amount of federally reimbursable meals served through organizations that already serve children. Florida Impact works with rural and urban communities in every region of Florida, and its advocacy at state and federal levels has made it easier to feed children all year long.

Implementation Considerations

School-based food programs often require adequate space, administrative capabilities, confidentiality, and training for staff and faculty. Food insecurity assessments can provide important information about the number of students in need of food and help with planning and budgeting for the program. Marketing and communication can help programs reach their intended populations.

Some states have laws about providing school breakfast and may provide funding and grants to help schools implement this program. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students for no cost. CEP reduces administrative burden and prevents student meal debt. Schools are eligible for CEP if at least 40% of students are certified for free meals without applying through household applications such as being from a household with SNAP or WIC.

Breakfast programs require cafeteria workers or other food preparation workers to arrive before school. Depending on the program design, buses may have to run earlier to bring kids to the cafeteria before school starts. Schools with limited labor resources or preparation space should evaluate what type of breakfast program works best for their school. Breakfast in the Classroom is one approach to implementing a breakfast program that doesn't require an early arrival.

Backpack food programs require relationships with area food banks, volunteers, and/or local businesses. Administration and faculty perception and attitudes about the food program should be assessed before implementation. Privacy of the children being served should be a top priority at all times. These programs are meant to serve children on an individual basis, meaning siblings who are not in school or in different schools are not accounted for. The cost of this food program can increase quickly, and thorough assessments of food insecurity in the school are needed to estimate program costs beforehand. Training for staff and faculty on recognizing the signs of food insecurity can help the program better reach hungry students.

Food assistance programs are also available to help meet the food needs of rural older adults. See Approaches to Increase Access to Foods that Support Healthy Eating Patterns for additional information about food systems approaches to improving food access.

Resources to Learn More

211 Food Hotline
Free and confidential food access information and referral service available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 2-1-1 is available in every language across the U.S. and parts of Canada, and accessible by phone, text, or web. Referral service can connect you with government assistance programs, school lunch programs, meal delivery services, and more.
Organization(s): United Way

Backpack Program Starter Toolkit
Toolkit for implementing backpack program in schools. Includes toolbox with sample letters for parents, a student identification survey, and culturally appropriate food recommendations.
Organization(s): Northwest Harvest Food bank

Food Assistance Programs
Provides links to food and nutrition assistance programs funded by the federal government and administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Agriculture

Food Insecurity in the United States
Map/Mapping System
Interactive map showing national, state, and county-level food insecurity across the United States.
Organization(s): Feeding America

In a “Nutshell”: Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) - Section 104 (s) HHFKA Understanding the Option
Overview of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows eligible schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students. Covers benefits of the program, considerations for schools, and frequently asked questions.
Organization(s): Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
Date: 5/2016

Rural Hunger
Provides resources and additional information about rural hunger, including an interactive mapping tool showing participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Organization: Food Research & Action Center

School Breakfast Program (SBP)
Official government website for Food and Nutrition Service's School Breakfast Program.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service

SNAP State Directory of Resources
State-specific information and instructions on how to apply for SNAP benefits. For states that allow electronic submission, direct links to the online application form are provided.

Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) Program Guidance
Detailed guidebooks for developing, implementing, and operating the USDA's Summer Food Service Program.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service