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Food Pantries in Schools

Food pantries in schools provide children facing food insecurity with easy access to nutritious food. This web page provides information regarding the benefits, operations, policies, resources, and trainings related to school food pantry programs.


In many communities, the school is the hub of activity and trusted resource center for families. School staff who have close relationships with students and their families are often aware of the family’s struggles with food insecurity. A school pantry becomes a safe, supportive way for schools and communities to provide students and their families access to nutritious food, either during or outside of traditional school hours. School food pantry programs can inspire healthy habits and build resilience, which in turn helps children to become more successful in school.


The California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division (NSD) supports schools interested in providing additional nutrition services to food insecure students and their families through school food pantry programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) strongly encourages Child Nutrition Program (CNP) operators to reduce school food waste by collecting excess wholesome food after mealtimes to donate to food pantries. Schools and districts across the state have adopted school food pantry programs that partner with local charitable organizations, food waste management agencies, and community food banks to offer food pantries and backpack programs in schools. The NSD is working with partners to promote equity and access to nutritious food, and identify best practices for food pantries in schools.

Benefits of School Food Pantry Programs

Improve Student Outcomes

  • Children who suffer from hunger or food insecurity have trouble concentrating and struggle with behavior issues in the classroom, which may lead to lower test scores and academic failure. Without enough nutrition, students experiencing food insecurity face a higher risk for long-term effects, such as poor physical and mental health, poor developmental outcomes, and lack of job readiness.

  • When students get the food they need, they feel better, perform better in school, and they have fewer behavior problems. About 60 percent of all children attending public schools in California come from low-income families and are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. School participation in breakfast, lunch, and snack programs is instrumental in helping address childhood hunger, but there are still gaps.

  • School food pantry programs provide food security outside of the school day, during school breaks, and throughout summer months, creating the safety children need to grow, learn, and thrive. School food pantry programs can also teach students about the value of nutritious food and the importance of reducing waste. Students engaged in school food pantry programs learn that they can have a positive impact on their families and their community, which leads to more socially and environmentally responsible behaviors.

Improve School Climate

  • Food insecurity significantly increases a child’s risk for being overweight or obese, and it may also cause the child to experience more health problems such as stomach aches, frequent headaches, and colds. As a result, these children are more likely to be absent from school, miss school frequently, and fall behind in grade levels. School food pantries increase access to wholesome foods, which can improve school attendance.

  • Children who experience hunger also struggle with getting along with their peers, develop behavior problems such as aggression, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and inattention, and have an increased likelihood of being suspended. School food pantries increase food security, which can decrease behavior and discipline problems. 

  • Students who have families that feel connected to the school community are more likely to have better school attendance, stay in school longer, and achieve higher grades and classroom test scores. School food pantries provide opportunities for families to feel welcome on the school site, build trust with school staff, volunteer, or provide input, which can improve school connectedness.

  • School food pantries can become a center for partnerships within the school and from outside the school to meet the needs of children and their families. School pantries are an effective way to promote nutrition and wellness, provide nutrition education and student support services, and distribute clothes, books, and other necessities. Strong school-community partnerships increase families’ access to other services, such as medical, dental, or mental health providers, federal assistance programs, housing assistance, and employment.

Operating School Food Pantry Programs

Schools operate food pantry programs in a number of ways depending on the partnerships, food source, location, and resources available. Promising practices in school food pantry programs include promoting nutrition and wellness in their operations.

Types of Programs

  • Backpack program: a program that provides food to students at no cost, prepackaged in a grocery bag or in a backpack to take home over the weekend.

  • On-site school food pantry: a program that invites students and their families to a designated space on campus to take food at no cost.

  • Mobile food pantry: a food pantry that visits various school sites, in a van or food truck, to provide food at no cost to students and their families.


  • Schools partner with local food banks to operate food pantry programs on site. The schools establish a schedule for the local food banks to be on the school grounds. The food banks use mobile food trucks or set up temporarily in classrooms, cafeterias, or in front of the school office to distribute the food.

  • Schools coordinate with existing school activities and programs, such as afterschool programs, nutrition services, pupil services, and Parent–Teacher Associations, to integrate food pantry programs on site.

  • Partnerships help schools maintain volunteers to sort, pack, or distribute food to students and their families. School food pantry programs involve student, parent, school staff, community, or food bank volunteers.

Food Sources

  • School food pantry programs accept food donations from a variety of community sources, including food drives from the families, grant or in-kind purchases, or donations from their local food bank.

  • Schools also donate leftover food from the meal programs to the school food pantry using proper food handling and collection methods, under the supervision of their food and nutrition services and county health departments.

  • Schools provide food donations to their local food banks to distribute the food on school sites.

Food Distribution

  • School food pantries preassemble packages of food, often in backpacks or grocery bags, to give to children to take home.

  • School food pantry programs also display and offer food similar to a grocery store or farmers market in which the students or families select which foods they would like to take home.

  • Schools identify who participates in school food pantry programs by taking referrals in a confidential manner from school staff, such as a school counselor or nurse, or identifying students by free and reduced-price school meal program eligibility or the schools’ Title I program status.

  • Schools also open the food pantry to all students and families regardless of need and do not require proof of income.

Food Storage

  • Generally, the foods distributed to families will depend on the type of storage and resources available.

  • Nonperishable items, such as dried beans, grains, shelf stable milk, and canned goods, are common when refrigeration is not available or the foods are not taken home immediately.

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are offered if they are not stored very long or if refrigeration is available.

  • Fresh meats and dairy products or frozen items are not as common on school sites because they require more extensive refrigeration equipment.

Nutrition and Wellness Promotion

Promising practices in school food pantry program operations also promote nutrition and wellness such as:

  • Including access to nutrition outside of traditional school hours in the school’s goals for promoting nutrition education and wellness policies.

  • Creating welcoming, client centered environments that encourage healthy choices and reduce food waste.

  • Educating and promoting wholesome food choices for planning nutritious meals.

  • Integrating social and emotional learning and trauma-informed practices that create emotionally healthy and safe environments.

Policy and Guidance

Properly implementing school food pantries involves understanding the various partners and locations involved in the operation and the federal, state, county, and school district policies that govern them.

Donation of Food
Food Safety
Data Privacy

Donation of Food

  • School meal program food donations are regulated by the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act. In 2011, Congress passed the School Food Recovery Act, amending the National School Lunch Act, “to clarify that schools and local educational agencies participating in the school lunch program are authorized to donate surplus food to local food banks or charitable organizations.” The California Department of Education (CDE) CNP-02-2018 Guidance on Donation of Leftover Food in Child Nutrition Programs management bulletin reviews the Food and Nutrition Service food recovery and donation policy.

  • Schools donating to a nonprofit or charitable organization are protected from liability by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act when food is donated in good faith to charitable organizations. The Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law has developed a helpful overview titled Liability Protection for Food Donation External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) that outlines liability protections under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act when donating food.

  • The California Department of Public Health Information Regarding the Donation of Food to Nonprofit Organizations External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) provides references for federal and state regulations governing donations of food in California.

  • Food given away to students and families on school campus does not meet the definition of competitive foods and is not restricted by the competitive food rules. The CDE Competitive Foods web page provides guidance about federal and state regulations for foods sold on school campuses during the school day. [7 Code of Federal Regulation, (7 CFR) 210.11(a)(2) External link opens in new window or tab.] and [California Education Code (EC) Section 49430(c) External link opens in new window or tab.]

Food Safety

Data Privacy

  • School food pantry programs collecting or sharing student data or personally identifiable information should comply with the school district’s Data Privacy policies and procedures. The CDE Data Privacy web page provides information and resources on state and federal data privacy regulations. [EC section 49062 External link opens in new window or tab., EC section 49073.1 External link opens in new window or tab., and EC section 49073.6 et seq. External link opens in new window or tab.]

  • The National Center for Education Statistics Data Privacy Forum’s Guide to Education Data Privacy External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) is a guide to assist school staff in protecting the confidentiality of student data in instructional and administrative practices.

  • The California County Superintendents Educational Services Association Data Privacy Guidebook External link opens in new window or tab.(PDF) provides tips and guidance for complying with student data privacy laws and best practices.


California School Food Pantry Examples
Food Waste Prevention Resources
Nutrition and Wellness Promotion
Tool Kits

California School Food Pantry Examples

Resource Description
Feeding San Diego Our Programs web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides information about the various programs of Feeding San Diego, including school food pantries and backpack programs.

Oakland Unified School District School Food Donation Program Guide External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
Provides a guide to starting school food donation programs for schools, districts, nutrition departments, and those interested in recovering surplus edible school food that would otherwise go to waste. The guide’s step-by-step instructions and customizable templates are the result of a pilot program at 11 Oakland Unified schools.
Second Harvest Food Bank Orange County How We Help web page External link opens in new window or tab.
Provides resources about the work of the Second Harvest Food Bank to provide wholesome food and fresh produce to more than 250,000 hungry children, seniors, and families in Orange County every month. They operate two models of school pantry programs – a mobile program and an on-site program.
San Francisco-Marin Food Bank web page External link opens in new window or tab.
Provides information about this food bank’s programs to address food insecurity. Includes information about how they partner with schools and other community agencies.

Food Waste Prevention Resources

Resource Description
California Department of Education (CDE) CNP-03-2018 Use of Share Tables  management bulletin
Provides guidance regarding the use of share tables in Child Nutrition Programs (CNP) and includes updated information from Senate Bill 557 signed into law and effective January 1, 2018.
Provides multiple resources to prevent plate waste in schools.
Provides a handout that can be used to briefly convey the role that schools play in reducing food waste, and other information about school food waste solutions.

Nutrition and Wellness Promotion

Resource Description

CDE Local School Wellness Policy web page

Provides guidance and resources for establishing school wellness policies. [Education Code Section 49432 External link opens in new window or tab.]

CDE Smarter Lunchroom Movement web page

Provides multiple resources to implement strategies to encourage healthy choices and reduce food waste, which are applicable to food pantries.
Provides practical steps and resources for protecting the emotional health of child nutrition staff and the students and families they serve during challenging times.

Provides nutrition education and promotion materials including recipes, posters, tip sheets, coloring sheets, and online tools to share with students and families.

Tool Kits

Resource Description
Dare to Care Partner Agency School Food Pantry Handbook External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
Provides guidance to partner agencies working with schools to implement a food pantry. Includes information on roles of partners, how to set up agreements, and various models of school food pantries.
Provides recommendations from the Feeding America Nutrition Nudge Research study, conducted by a team of research experts led by Dr. David Just of Cornell University and the Feeding America Community Health and Nutrition team, to develop marketing interventions to increase the distribution of healthy foods to clients in a food pantry setting, and to learn food banks’ and food pantries’ perspectives on their operations and service delivery of nutrition education in food pantry settings.
Provides a tool kit for agencies in a community wanting to start a food pantry. Includes information on assessing readiness, selecting a site, and provides information on the different stages of planning, implementing, and sustaining a school pantry. Also includes sample forms and case studies from Maine.
Provides guidance on how to implement a backpack food program including templates and sample documents; discusses ways to incorporate a backpack program into a Summer Food Service Program and school meal programs.
Maryland Food Bank School Food Pantry web page External link opens in new window or tab.
Provides information about school food pantry programs in Maryland.
North Carolina State Extension Healthy Food Pantry Toolkit web page External link opens in new window or tab.
Compiles resources from multiple programs and topic areas, including local food procurement, food safety, nutrition education and cooking support as well as evaluation based on impact of policy, systems, and environmental changes. Provides guidance on how to implement a food pantry that provides healthy foods.
Provides promotional templates to communicate to stakeholders when starting a school food pantry. Also includes a quick guide to setting up a school food pantry.


Online Trainings

Resource Description
California Department of Education Child Nutrition Programs (CNP) Course Catalog web page

Provides a catalog of various online training courses for program operators participating in the CNPs.

Leah's Pantry Training and Capacity Building web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides individuals and organizations trainings on how to implement an organized healthy pantry program model and provide trauma-informed nutrition education at their sites.

ServSafe Food Handler California web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Provides training and certification for individuals performing any duties that involve the preparation, storage, or service of food in a food facility.


If you have any questions, please contact the California Department of Education Nutrition Services Division by phone at 800-952-5609 or by email at

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Monday, January 23, 2023
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