The Case for Food Services Programs in Charter Schools
Research shows that providing food services during the school day leads to several important outcomes, especially for lower income students, including improving student health, raising student achievement, and combating food insecurity. The USDA estimates that 13 million students live in “food insecure” households and may rely on school meals as their only or primary food source. The Federal National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs deliver free or reduced price breakfast to 12.5 million students and lunches to 21.5 million students and many states further supplement these programs.
Despite these programs, the USDA notes that, for a variety of reasons, some charter schools have difficulty with providing food services. Authorizers should be aware of the benefits, as well as the unique challenges charter schools face, especially when the absence of food services can limit access to charter schools for low-income families.
Barriers to Providing Food Services
For charter schools, many of the barriers to providing food services stem from the challenges of complying with requirements for the federal and state programs. However, even schools prepared for these requirements, or wishing to provide food services outside these programs, face significant hurdles.
Facilities, Staffing & Preparation
Participants in federal food services programs must comply with regulations covering food safety, preparation, facility requirements, and staffing policies. Fewer than half of charter school facilities have adequate kitchen facilities, just one of the many challenges charter schools have in locating adequate facilities generally. Additionally, given the comparatively small scale of their programs, charter schools face difficulty in hiring and training staff and administrators to run the program.
Food services programs require specialized knowledge to run efficiently, especially if participating in a federal funding program. Administrators must understand and comply with complex regulations, particularly verifying student eligibility for funding reimbursement, as well as maintain rigorous reporting. For a charter school, where oversight is likely only a small part of one administrator’s job, effective administration can be challenging.
Reimbursement rates under federal food services programs are set at flat per-meal rates, with a small adjustment for high eligibility enrollment. Here again, charter schools may struggle to take advantage of the same economies of scale, making it difficult to meet or exceed nutritional standards.
Many of the factors above explain why many charter schools that do provide food services rely on third-party vendors or the local district. However, reliance on a vendor eliminates much of the school’s autonomy, limiting input or involvement by the school on things like menu selection and staff oversight. Schools may wish to customize their services to meet the needs of their community but are stuck with one-size-fits-all food service plans. Charter schools in some areas may have a non-cooperative school district or a lack of quality third-party vendors, further limiting options.
What Role Can Authorizers Play?
Thirteen states require charter applicants to describe the school’s food services plan, though two of these states require such plans only if the applicant intends to provide such services. Authorizers responsible for reviewing food services plans in a charter school’s application should be well versed in state and federal requirements to ensure proposed plans are viable.
Authorizers, especially state and local education agencies, can also provide important technical support and assistance to charter schools, including administrative support (such as verifying eligibility), recruiting and vetting third party vendors, and supporting partnerships and coalitions between charter schools and/or local food service agencies. Other categories of authorizers may be able to assist charter schools in their portfolio navigate vendor options, or coordinate collectives among charter schools to provide food services collaboratively.
What’s Happening Around the Country
- Delaware: All charter schools are required to provide breakfast and lunch services for students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch, however the state leaves the method of provision up to the individual school. (14 Del. C. §506(f))
- Florida: Authorizers are required to provide charter schools assistance in food services matters, including eligibility and verification reporting and funding reimbursement. (FL Stat. §1002.33(20))
- Ohio: All charter schools with at least 20% free and reduced price lunch eligible students are required to provide food service unless the charter governing board determines that it cannot comply for financial reasons and communicates this determination to parents. (OH Rev. Code §3314.18)
Case Study: California AB1871
Since 1975, California has ensured that all eligible students are provided at least one free or reduced-price meal each school day. Charter schools, however, are exempt from this requirement. As a result, as of 2017 nearly 80,000 eligible students, attended charter schools that did not provide food service.
In 2018, California enacted AB1871, expanding the food services requirement to most charter schools, while also protecting charter school autonomy and providing flexibility and support necessary to implement food services programs.
The law requires all charter schools to provide at least one in-school meal to all eligible students on each school day where students are expected on-site for two or more consecutive hours. This gives flexibility to ‘hybrid’ schools that offer both on-site and of-site instruction, while exempting schools that provide only non-classroom or non-site instruction.
The new law also protects school autonomy by not specifying how charter schools must meet the food services requirement, while clarifying that charter schools may partner with an existing food services authority. Additionally, the bill leverages the capacity and expertise of authorizers, nearly all local districts or county boards of education, to provide technical assistance to charter schools.
Food services in charter schools depends on many factors, including but not limited to:
- Whether the charter school is an LEA for food services purposes
- Availability of facilities with adequate meal preparation resources
- Coordination and cooperation of local district
- Availability of quality third-party food services vendors
- State and other supplemental funding for food services
Given the different circumstances charter schools face, policy needs may greatly vary. However, NACSA offers the following general policy guidance:
Expect all charter schools to address food services
Many states still do not require all schools, including charter schools, to provide food services or participate in state or federal food service programs. Others require only schools with a certain proportion of eligible student enrollment to participate. States should, at a minimum, require charter schools to address how they will ensure that student nutritional needs are met, whether or not the school provides food services. If a school will not be providing food services, the school should provide its authorizer with a clear reasoning.
Give charter schools flexibility in meeting food service needs
Charter schools should have maximum flexibility in determining how to best meet the food service needs of their students and community. Some schools may have facilities with modern kitchens and cafeterias and decide to provide meals in house; some may find value in forming a charter school collaborative to provide food services; others might contract with the district or a third-party vendor. There are likely dozens of alternatives policymakers have not even considered: charter schools should have the autonomy needed to choose the right option for themselves.
Ensure funding equity at smaller scales and provide assistance in navigating programs
Funding for food service programs are largely readily available. Federal food service funding, especially for schools that serve disproportionately low-income students, covers much of what is needed, and many states further supplement this aid. Where charter schools run into trouble is in the complexity of operating and reporting under these programs, as well as in achieving the scale necessary to be financially viable. Charter schools need assistance in navigating funding programs and making the budget numbers work.
The research is clear: healthy nutrition makes a huge difference in student achievement, particularly for low-income students. Charter schools that fail to provide food services, regardless of the reason, are failing their low income students and unintentionally keeping others from even attending. Policy changes are needed to help overcome the many barriers charter schools face in providing food services, but authorizers also have a key role to play in driving charter schools within their portfolio to address this equity issue.