Peer and Community Networks Drive Success in Rural School Meal Programs

Challenges and strategies for meeting students’ nutritional needs in remote areas

Peer and Community Networks Drive Success in Rural School Meal Programs
Rural school bus

© Getty Images


More than half of public school districts in the United States are in rural communities where millions of students struggle with poverty and hunger. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 24 percent of rural children lived in poverty and 686,000 rural households with children were food insecure in 2014. About 95 percent of rural schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, and many also operate federally funded breakfast and snack programs. But because of their remote locations and smaller populations of students and potential employees, these districts face acute challenges in delivering healthy meals.

To explore the issues that rural school nutrition professionals, particularly those in small districts, confront in ensuring that all students in need receive healthy meals, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—commissioned an in-depth study of rural district meal programs. The analysis also examined the evidence-based strategies and practices that can lessen or remove those hurdles.

The study used the National Center for Education Statistics’ definition of “rural.” The center assigns each district to one of four categories—city, suburb, town, or rural—based on proximity to a Census Bureau-defined urban center. Information from two nationally representative surveys of school districts was used to define “small” districts as those with fewer than 2,500 students. Researchers conducted a literature review of peer-reviewed studies and government reports on rural school meal programs; interviews with rural education or nutrition experts, and school food program directors; and focus groups with directors in Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas. Additionally, more than 50 rural school nutrition experts, including leaders from the education, government, industry, and nonprofit sectors, gathered in September 2016 to review the findings and develop recommendations for policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels.

The project’s analysis identified five challenges that, while not unique to rural districts, factor heavily in the success of their nutrition programs and examined the strategies these districts use to overcome the challenges they face:

  1. Administrative capacity. A common issue, especially in very small rural districts, is the limited number of nutrition staff available to perform the administrative duties associated with operating a school meal program, including purchasing, invoicing, and creating menus. Peer networking, external consultants, and effective use of technology can help districts overcome limited staff capacity.
  2. Qualified staff. Recruiting experienced nutrition staff can be difficult in rural districts, which tend to have fewer qualified people in the labor pool compared with larger, urban areas. Training staff can be difficult in rural settings, where school nutrition personnel often have responsibilities outside of meal program operations and may have difficulty finding time for professional development. Many rural districts address these potential barriers by working with nearby higher education institutions to promote school nutrition careers and adapt training formats for staff members who cannot travel long distances for in-person professional development.
  3. Dispersed student population. Bus rides of up to two hours each way limit the time students have to eat during the school day, especially at breakfast. Some districts are using inventive serving strategies, such as “breakfast-after-the-bell” and “grab-and-go” options, to expand student access to school meals and give students more time to eat.
  4. Food and supply options. Because of their remote locations, many rural districts have difficulty finding vendors that offer desirable delivery schedules; competitive prices; and high-quality food, supplies, and equipment. Forming or joining purchasing cooperatives, sourcing locally, and collaborating with community businesses help rural districts purchase products to meet their requests.
  5. Equipment and infrastructure. Many schools nationwide serve meals in outdated kitchens, but rural districts tend to suffer most acutely from some of the problems associated with old infrastructure, such as lack of storage space to accommodate the larger quantities of fruits and vegetables that schools are serving. Pursuing public or private grants and seeking community support in the form of matching funds or grant-writing assistance can enable rural school nutrition programs to overcome kitchen equipment and infrastructure limitations.

Although this research focused on the problem areas listed above, it also found that certain characteristics of rural schools and communities could help student meal programs tackle these challenges. Attendees at the 2016 convening and focus group participants indicated that smaller student populations and less administrative bureaucracy and organizational complexity can allow rural schools to implement changes, such as modified lunch and recess schedules to give students more time to eat, more easily than larger districts.

This report examines the results of the study and outlines strategies that rural districts can use to overcome barriers as well as ways that policymakers and national organizations can help:

  • School districts and community members can collaborate to share information and resources; attract and retain qualified school nutrition professionals; and purchase, prepare, and serve high-quality food for a rural student population.
  • Professional organizations for school nutrition workers and nonprofits with an interest in children’s health can facilitate networking and training opportunities for rural school meal programs.
  • Local, state, and federal policymakers can expand funds for technology and kitchen upgrades, and provide technical assistance to ensure that rural districts have the resources they need.

With support from all levels of government and their local communities, rural school meal programs can build on the creative strategies they are already using to provide healthy, appealing foods that meet their students’ nutritional needs.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Healthy foods
Healthy foods

How Schools Are Getting Kids to Eat Healthy Foods

New report reveals strategies for successful meal programs

Quick View

Several studies have shown impressive improvements in students’ food choices since 2012, when updated school nutrition standards began to take effect across the country. Children are selecting more nutritious meals and eating more of the healthy entrees, fruits, and vegetables they take. This rapid upturn in students’ habits raises an important question: How are schools doing it?

School kitchens
School kitchens
Issue Brief

Neighborhoods Benefit From Access to School Kitchens

Making facilities available to the public promotes health, community engagement

Quick View
Issue Brief

As school districts nationwide serve more nutritious foods to students, cafeterias have become classrooms that help children to develop healthy eating habits for a lifetime. Lunchrooms also serve as gathering places for parent-teacher organizations and student groups. And schools across the country are making their kitchen facilities available to the public for activities that promote health and community engagement, such as cooking classes, business incubation, and food storage for after-school events.

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.