Littleton Public Schools nutrition director advocates for federal support of meal programs

Nutrition directors push lawmakers for universal free meals, fewer regulations

Nina Joss
Posted 3/20/23

Looking towards July, nutrition directors in schools across the country are urging federal lawmakers to strengthen their support of school nutrition programs.

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Littleton Public Schools nutrition director advocates for federal support of meal programs

Nutrition directors push lawmakers for universal free meals, fewer regulations


Looking towards July, nutrition directors in schools across the country are urging federal lawmakers to strengthen their support of school nutrition programs.

Jessica Gould, the nutrition director at Littleton Public Schools, was one of 800 school nutrition professionals who went to Washington D.C. in March to call for changes at the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) annual legislative action conference.

They urged Congress to financially support school meal programs, slow regulatory changes and take steps towards offering free school meals for all students.

“If (kids) don't have nutrition in them, are they going to be able to learn all the things that we're doing and teaching them in school?” Gould said. “Giving every child the opportunity to have a nutritious breakfast and lunch keeps them fueled for their day so that they can learn and that they can reach their highest potential.”

Federal funding

Congress dropped billions in COVID relief from its spending bill in 2022, including money that allowed schools to offer free meals to all students during the pandemic. At that time, Gould and her colleagues across the country worried how they would continue to provide food for the clearly massive need in their communities.

Right in the nick of time, the federal government made a move to continue support to schools’ nutrition programs for the next year.

“At the very last minute - I mean, very last minute - the Keep Kids Fed Act funding… came through for us, which was very instrumental and, in all honesty, like critical for us to keep maintaining our budget,” Gould said.

The Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022 increased the federal funding reimbursement for school lunches and breakfasts.

This July, the funding will end unless it is extended.

In D.C., Gould and her colleagues urged lawmakers to make permanent the funding increases from the Keep Kids Fed Act.

Inflation, supply shortages and higher salaries to combat labor shortages have dramatically increased costs for school food programs, according to the SNA. A recent survey by the group showed that 99.8% of school nutrition director respondents are challenged by increasing costs.

“The way that the regulations are written, we are pretty tied to that reimbursement, that it is a very specific equation” Gould said. “And it just is not enough right now for us to maintain our program and the integrity of our programs…. What gets cut, you know? Do you cut on professional development for the team? Do you cut on food quality?”

Gould said two bills in Congress propose extending the Keep Kids Fed Act or permanently funding school nutrition programs.

Healthy School Meals for All

In November, almost 57% of Colorado voters supported a proposition to provide a universal free school meal program at districts in the state. This program, called Healthy School Meals for All, will start in Littleton in August.

During their legislative action conference, Gould and her colleagues advocated for the federal government to implement a program like this in all states.

“A student that's hungry in Colorado is no different than a student that's hungry in Nebraska,” Gould said. “I think as a global perspective, just wanting that same benefit for all kids is important.”

Since meal waivers from the pandemic expired, California and Maine have continued free meals in their states, according to the SNA. But most school meal programs in the country require families to complete free and reduced-price applications.

“If you make $51,400 as a family of four, you don't qualify (for free and reduced meals in Littleton),” Gould said.

For this reason, families in Littleton and across the country build up negative balances within school meal systems. SNA reported that many schools must cut into other funds to cover the debt.

Thanks to support from the Littleton Public Schools Foundation, negative balances will be wiped clean in the district before the Healthy School Meals for All program begins next school year, Gould said.

"As we move into next year, no family will then have to worry about the balance that they previously had or any of that and then all kids will be able to eat for free,” she said.

It’s unlikely the national government will start a program for free meals for all states this year, Gould said, but it’s worth taking steps towards the goal.

Pause additional nutrition standards

Gould said the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently rolled out proposed nutrition standards that would call for further reductions in sodium and sugar, starting in the 2024-2025 school year.

In D.C., she and other advocates called on lawmakers to ensure the USDA maintains current school nutrition standards, rather than implementing “additional, unachievable rules,” according to the SNA.

Schools plan menus a year or more ahead of time, Gould said. Expecting schools to meet new nutrition standards by the 2024-2025 school year doesn’t provide enough time for them to conduct taste testing to ensure the meals are desirable in student’s eyes.

“It's very proven that no matter how hungry some kids are, if (food) tastes horrible, they will not eat it,” Gould said. “We want to make sure it's nutritious and that it is actually palatable.”

In addition, many manufacturers don’t offer products that would meet the new reductions in sodium and sugar.

“We are asking for more of a conversation about what the rollout looks like, so that we don't need to start those rollouts (in the 2024-2025 school year),” Gould said. “And/or if we do, that it's less of an aggressive rollout.”

Gould understands the intention of the proposed nutrition standards, but said schools have been working towards healthy meals with lower sodium and more fruits and vegetables for many years. She said educating families and students on nutrition and how to implement it in a healthy lifestyle is the next crucial step.

“To me, that's a little bit more of what we need to be doing right now,” she said. “So that… as we do continue to increase the nutritional quality of the items that we're providing, it sticks because they understand why they're doing it too — we’re not just doing it behind the scenes and they have no idea what's happening”

Advocates also asked Congress to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens so nutrition providers can better put time and resources towards serving students.

As Littleton Public School looks forward to beginning the Healthy School Meals for All program, Gould said her team needs to hire about 25 more staff members to meet the higher participation.

“Every initiative that we want to do will fall short if we don't have the people to help do it,” she said. “it really is like the most amazing job because you're working your student’s schedule. There's a lot of benefits — I think people kind of forget that they're out there.”

Interested applicants can find more information and apply on the district’s website at

school meals, food insecurity, littleton public schools, school nutrition association, healthy school meals for all


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