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Food for Thought: Providing Meals to All Students

Providing meals for all students, and using meal times as a way to promote learning, is a policy many top-performing systems use to ensure that all students are healthy and ready to learn.

Top-performing systems see multiple benefits to providing lunch to all students.

During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed schools to provide free meals to all students. In April, USDA extended this temporary policy through the 2021-22 school year. California and Maine made this policy permanent in June, making them the first states to do so. Some large cities—New York City, Boston, and Chicago—already offer free meals for all students, but no other states do so as of today.

Providing meals for all students, and using meal times as a way to promote learning, is a policy many top-performing systems use to ensure that all students are healthy and ready to learn. Finland was the first country in the world to provide free daily school meals for all school children in 1948, a policy initially put in place to encourage more students to attend school regularly. Estonia also provides free lunch for all students and continued to provide these meals even when schools were closed due to the pandemic. The rationale in many top-performing systems is not just to ensure that students are adequately fed but also to build community, provide a platform to educate students about nutrition, and make sure all students have an equal lunch. They use lunchtime to promote social and emotional growth and teach nutrition and personal responsibility. In Japan, for example, where school lunch is not free but is highly subsidized, all students eat a school-provided lunch together in their classrooms, which they also prepare and serve. Lunch is referred to as shokuiku which translates to “food and nutrition education.” Some classrooms in Shanghai also use a common class lunch as an opportunity to teach children about nutrition. For more on how top performers design policies to provide a foundation of supports to promote equity in education, see NCEE’s Top-Performing Country Profiles.