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For kids across the country, going back to school means new sneakers and backpacks, homework, summer book reports and catching up on holiday stories. There is an added sense of excitement this year as districts and schools return to full in-person instruction.
But for too many families, the anticipation of a new school year is clouded by the lingering fear that their children won’t have enough to eat.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, over 38 million people in the United States are food insecure; 12 million of them are children. In 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act, which gave the department the authority to provide school meals — both breakfast and lunch — free of charge to all families. As schools remained empty, these waivers allowed districts to meet hungry families where they were during the pandemic, whether through home delivery of boxed meals or delivery service in school parking lots. Unlike in previous years, there were no prerequisites or requirements to prove need; All students and families were eligible.
Now the government is grappling with whether schools can return to what they were before and how – particularly given the deteriorating socio-economic conditions for families already living on the margins. Caregivers struggling to get food on the table breathe a little easier knowing their children have access to two meals a day at school and during the summer. Even families who have never qualified before rely on what is commonly known as the School Lunch Program.
On September 28, the White House will host the Hunger, Nutrition and Health Conference for the first time since 1969. This original event shaped the nation’s food policy agenda for the past 50 years, and now the Biden administration will set the course for the future. The conference will focus on five pillars: improving access to and affordability of food, integrating nutrition and health, empowering all consumers to access healthy choices, supporting physical activity for all, and improving research on nutrition and food security.
This is a unique opportunity to make a lasting impact on the health and well-being of all children. Even before the pandemic, advocates argued that children and families are slipping through the cracks, either because they didn’t apply for the school lunch program or because they weren’t eligible. By introducing a universal free lunch program that eliminates the lengthy application process and allows all students to eat at school, there will be no reason for any child to go hungry again.
The advantages are many.
Ensuring students are fed daily takes the strain off teachers, and school systems are already facing unprecedented challenges as they cope with staff shortages, learning gaps from two years of distance learning, and mounting mental health problems. The fact is that hungry children cannot learn, but when students are provided with nutritious, health-promoting meals, behavior problems decrease, concentration improves, test scores rise, and attendance increases. When schools are part of a larger network of social services and clinical providers, they can connect struggling families with additional resources, whether it be a food bank, employment agency or counseling center, because most of the time a family is food insecure and also has other unmet needs.
But beyond nutrition, there’s another strong argument for providing universal free school meals: It reduces the stigma for students in traditional free and concessionary programs, as there is no longer any difference between them and their cafeteria peers. Without the concern of others judging, students’ anxiety is likely to be reduced, potentially improving their overall mental health. As school-based mental health providers work overtime to meet an ever-growing list of student needs, this is welcome, much-needed support.
When families’ basic needs are met, students are better prepared to learn and school staff can spend less time finding food for hungry students and more time teaching them what they need to learn. Adopting a national free lunch program will not be easy; it’s about logistics, costs and political will. But children are this country’s most important natural resource. Investing in their health and well-being directly impacts the nation’s economic and social future.
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