Reading, writing … and a really nutritious lunch? That’s what’s on the menu this upcoming school year. The federal government extended healthy school meals for all – as a response to the ongoing pandemic – through the 2021-22 school year so that all students can eat free meals at school regardless of family income.
While this is a win for students, their families and schools, the future of heathy school meals for all beyond this school year is unknown. Kristy Anderson, MPP, the senior government relations advisor for the American Heart Association is working to take this temporary program and make it a permanent one. Voices for Healthy Kids sat down with her to gain insight into healthy school meals for all and why it should be here to stay.
Voices for Healthy Kids: What is healthy school meals for all?
Kristy Anderson: Healthy school meals for all allows children enrolled in a school that operates the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program to receive free breakfast and free lunch, regardless of their families’ incomes. Healthy school meals for all also removes the administrative burden for schools and families by making all kids eligible.
We are super-excited that the budget bill being considered in the House of Representatives expands the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) – a program that was created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that allow for the highest poverty schools to provide universal meals. While this is an important step toward achieving healthy school meals for all, we still need to continue to push to ensure all children have access to school meals.
Voices for Healthy Kids: What are the benefits of healthy school meals for all?
Anderson: There are too many benefits to mention! This program is really a win-win. We get kids two nutritious meals a day, which helps kids succeed in school. Did you know a recent study showed that school meals are the healthiest source of food for kids?
This program also:
removes stigma of children participating in the program
provides equitable access to healthy meals to all kids – making sure no student goes hungry during the day
reduces burdens on families
provides a steady budget for school food service programs
allows children more time to eat and socialize because there’s no need to stand in line and pay for meals
takes pressure off school food service programs to increase revenue by serving foods that may be lower in nutritional quality
Data from the CEP found that serving free meals to all kids improved attendance rates, improved grade promotion, and increased participation in school lunch. It is reasonable to assume that healthy school meals for all could have the same positive impact.
Voices for Healthy Kids: How do healthy school meals for all improve equity?
Anderson: Healthy school meals for all makes sure that no children fall through the cracks. Given the current unstable economy, more children will likely be eligible for free meals this upcoming school year and their eligibility status may fluctuate. Healthy school meals for all also decreases lunch shaming and stigma in the cafeteria.
Voices for Healthy Kids: With everything else that is of urgent need with the COVID-19 response, why is this the right time for healthy school meals for all?
Anderson: All around the country, schools are approaching instruction differently. While many schools are trying to renew in-person learning, we have already seen in the news that some schools have had to quarantine students after only a few days because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Some schools are trying new, innovative approaches to feeding the students to try and mitigate transmission, which can make payment challenging. Healthy school meals for all gives flexibility to programs so that they can keep feeding kids no matter what the new school day structure looks like. Additionally, healthy school meals for all will help ensure that schools can continue to operate the federal child nutrition programs in a moment of unprecedented financial losses.
Voices for Healthy Kids: How can healthy school meals for all complement other ways to address food and nutrition insecurity, such as the increase in the SNAP benefit and expanding Pandemic EBT (P-EBT)?
Anderson: All of these programs are vitally important to keep families fed. This isn’t an either-or proposition, nor should we be pitting these programs against each other. While SNAP helps the whole family, and P-EBT helps close gaps for children who may not be able to receive their free school meals. In addition, school meals serve a unique role since they have nutrition standards. School meals not only focus on keeping children fed but also ensure they receive nutritious meals that meet dietary recommendations for children. In fact, studies show that school meals are often healthier than meals brought from home and are the healthiest source of meals for children. Given both the pandemic and the chronic disease crisis, it is more important than ever that we try to reach as many children as we can through all means necessary to give them the nutrition they need to live long, healthy lives.
The pandemic has shined a bright light on all the fissions in our food and nutrition security systems. With increasing unemployment and rising nutrition and food insecurity, healthy school meals for all gives us a strong tool to keep kids from going hungry during these unprecedented times. Before the pandemic, school meals were often the only guaranteed meal for millions of children, and healthy school meals for all helps keep these services going so a child’s access to food isn’t dependent on income during a public health and economic crisis.
Keep learning! Check out the Voices for Healthy Kids Fast Facts for School Nutrition.