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Free School Meals Lead to More Successful Students

Two new reports suggest that having regular and stable access to healthful food has a massive impact on a student’s performance in school and on tests. The findings underscore the link between food access and children’s ability to succeed long-term into adulthood and access opportunities to advance their economic standings.

The first, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, makes a groundbreaking connection between kids’ SAT scores and how recently their families received SNAP benefits. They found that kids who took the test soon after benefits become available, when their homes were more likely to be stocked with nutritious food, scored better than kids who took the test during the last two weeks of their benefit cycle. Lower SAT scores reduce the probability of these students attending a 4-year college, limiting their opportunities for economic advancement in the future.

The second, a report from the Brookings Institute, found that schools that provide schoolwide free-meal programs had better outcomes for their students. Some schools saw improved math performance, while others saw a significant decrease in disciplinary problems and suspensions.

Both reports make what we’ve known for a long time clear and concrete – children need access to healthful foods to thrive in school and maximize opportunities for their future success. For the 40% of children who participate in subsidized free and reduced-price meal programs, school meals can account for up to half of their total calorie intake. With food insecurity continuing to climb due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for schoolwide free meals has become critical.

School districts across the country have gone above and beyond to provide healthy school meals to their students during the pandemic. Unfortunately, budget restraints are foodservice directors’ most significant obstacle. It’s time for the government to step up and provide schools with increased funding to expand meal programs and deliver the most nutritious options to their students. All children – especially those in BIMPOC communities – deserve equal access to healthful food for an equal opportunity to learn, thrive, and succeed.

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