Healthy School Meals for All

Written by
Stephanie Scarmo, Ph.D., M.P.H., Senior Manager of Policy Research, Voices for Healthy Kids
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Why Voices for Healthy Kids Supports Healthy School Meals for All?

Healthy students are better learners. For parents who have already or are preparing to send their kids back to school, this sentiment is probably top-of-mind. One of the best ways to guarantee that students stay focused and engaged in the classroom is to ensure they have a nutritious breakfast and lunch. But millions of families with children will experience food insecurity – lacking access to enough food – this year, some for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Black, Latino and Native American children fare even worse: their families are more likely to live in communities where neighborhood structures limit access to healthy options like full-service grocery stores or healthy, affordable food and drinks at convenience stores.

That’s why Voices for Healthy Kids supports healthy school meals for all. It’s important to ensure free breakfast and free lunch to all students, regardless of their family’s income.


How to Do It: Community Eligibility Provision and Universal School Meals

For years now, schools in high-poverty areas have been providing free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), instead of making eligible families apply individually for free or reduced-price meals. Congress created CEP and phased the program into a few states at a time before expanding nationwide during the 2014–2015 school year. Participation has grown steadily ever since — as of the 2020–2021 school year, 56% of eligible school districts participated in CEP.

In addition to CEP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created other ways schools can provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of their qualifying income. Universal school meals operate slightly differently than CEP and may have different eligibility cutoffs and reimbursement rates for schools.

As a result, Voices for Healthy Kids supports a policy approach where states can work with local school districts to determine which method (CEP or other universal school meal options) is best for them.


It’s Not Just About Healthy Eating

Healthy school meals for all provide numerous benefits to students and school food programs. In fact, a recent review of nearly 50 studies found that programs providing healthy school meals for all:


  • Positively impacts students’ academic performance

  • Improves students’ attendance

  • Helps school food service budgets financially

  • Reduces food insecurity among students from families with low incomes

  • Increases diet quality among students


While our colleagues at the American Heart Association and coalition partners work to get healthy school meals for all adopted at the federal level, in the interim, we must support states in passing policies that help ensure eligible schools participate in these programs. Back to school is the perfect time to get involved – check out more reasons to support healthy school meals here.

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