In May 2020, running until the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the US Congress authorized the US Department of Agriculture to issue nationwide waivers that allowed all schools to provide universal free school meals to mitigate the impacts of school closures as well as the broader economic challenges faced by families during the COVID-19 emergency. This study aimed to examine parent perceptions about school free meals and whether these perceptions differed by race and ethnicity. In May 2022, 1100 California parents of K-12 students from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and State regions responded to a survey to share their perspectives about school meals during the school year 2021-22. Across all racial and ethnic groups, California parents reported that free school meals offered multiple benefits to families, saving them money, time, and stress, and expressed that the stigma associated with school meals was low. However, parents expressed that there was an area for improvement in the variety, taste, and healthfulness of school meals, where parents of Hispanic and Asian students reported less favorable perceptions of these qualities than parents of White students. This study suggests that there is strong support among parents for free school meals, but further efforts are needed to implement a variety of culturally appropriate school meals and make improvements in their taste and healthfulness. Results from the study were recently published in the Health Affairs Scholar journal. The study was conducted by Nutrition Policy Institute researchers Monica Zuercher, Christina Hecht, Kenneth Hecht, and Dania Orta-Aleman in collaboration with Juliana Cohen, Deborah Olarte, and Leah Chapman from Merrimack College, Punam Ohri-Vachaspati from Arizona State University, Michele Polacsek from the University of New England, Margaret Read from Share Our Strength, Anisha Patel from Stanford Pediatrics, and Marlene Schwartz from the University of Connecticut.
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