The school bell rings, students are heading to class. They should be bright, fresh, and ready to learn, but instead, many are having trouble staying focused and awake. Money’s been tight at home, and the fridge was empty this morning. For the third time this week, the day begins with an empty stomach. Child Hunger in the U.S. is not a new problem, and the pandemic has only made it more prevalent. There is, however, an easy and universal solution – school meals.
Schools have been feeding students since the late 1800s, and as programs caught on nationally in the 1900s, teachers noticed a positive difference in the physical and mental wellbeing of their students. In 1946 the National School Lunch Program was founded and expanded in 1966 with the Child Nutrition Act, adding additional subsidies for low-income families and school breakfast.
Today, schools serve more than 44.37 million meals every day. With the support of the Pandemic- EBT assistance program, every child 18 and under has access to breakfast, lunch, and a snack from their schools free of cost through the 2021-22 school year. Support for universal free meal programs is gaining momentum, and multiple states have already made funding for the program permanent. Congress is currently considering federal legislation that would make these permanent programs the reality for the entire country.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of school meal programs in every community in the U.S., yet schools still aren’t receiving adequate support. By supporting school meal programs, we can ensure that all children have reliable access to nutritious meals. Reliable access has been shown to decrease stress and worry in children and young adults and increase classroom participation, test scores, and grades. Access to food is a right, not a privilege, and we have the ability to ensure it’s a reality for all children.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around free and reduced-price school meals. School food service leaders are committed to the health and well-being of their students, but many feel at odds against district leaders who don’t offer enough support and parents who don’t feel that the meals are “good enough.” By investing in our school meal programs and encouraging universal participation, we can remove the stigma and ensure our children never feel shame for eating at school.
Our team at Eat REAL supports school district leaders in achieving their meal program nutrition and sustainability goals by creating comprehensive change plans customized to each district. We know the important role these programs play in the health and wellbeing of children and the impact they can have on redesigning a healthier and more equitable food system.