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The Vital Role of School Lunch in Kids' Health

November 24, 2020

Back to school for some kids simply means time for new backpacks and school supplies. But for others, it means a return to regular meals that they can count on. Many children do not receive consistent meals over the summer because their families do not have enough food resources.

This year, with many schools disrupted due to the pandemic, food resources can be even more precarious. It is more important than ever to understand the challenges and options in fighting childhood hunger.

In 1946, the National School Lunch Program became law. Free or reduced-price meals have been available for children since. School lunches fill the food gap for about 30 million kids per year across the United States. In 2018, schools served more than 4.8 billion lunches nationwide.

In 1966, the School Breakfast Program started as a pilot, and it became permanent in 1975. Now more than 14 million kids have breakfast at school too.

Kids receive free or reduced-price meals in schools based on their family’s household income or number of people in their family. Their parent may also qualify for other government programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Nutrition and learning

Proper nutrition is vital for childhood education. Kids who do not have enough to eat are more likely to struggle in school and other situations. They could fall behind in language and motor skills. Or they could experience behavioral problems like aggression, anxiety, and depression.

They are also more likely to have physical health problems, like asthma and anemia.

With meals provided at school, kids can focus on learning instead of where they will eat their next meal.

Food as a social determinant of health

Access to healthy affordable food can have significant impacts on a person's health. This factor and other life circumstances are called social drivers of health. These factors include:

  • where people live,
  • what stores are nearby,
  • the types of jobs they have,
  • and their access to transportation.

These drivers make a difference in how much and what kind of food people can provide for their families.

Families struggle to feed their kids for many reasons. They may have a hard time buying food because of they are working low-wage jobs or unemployed. They may also live in a food desert with limited food resources. Or they may not have a car or other transportation to go to a store or food pantry. They may be homeless.

Adjusting to provide for kids during a pandemic

In March 2020, many schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For kids who eat free or reduced-cost meals at school, a source of food also closed.

School districts and nonprofit organizations had to adapt how they provide meals to these kids. They arranged walk-up and drive-up services with safety measures. Some delivered meals to homes using school buses. Partnerships with local community organizations helped supply food as well. These included the Boys and Girls Clubs in many cities and local restaurants.

Many schools are now operating on limited schedules this fall, with continued uncertainty ahead. More kids are staying at home instead of going to the school building. The ones who have relied on meals at school are at higher risk for hunger.

But communities, parents and families continue to work together for solutions. Parents or those looking to help can reach out to organization such as Feeding America, Share Our Strength and food pantries.

Schools, communities, health organizations, and nonprofits look for new ways to keep kids fed and learning. They are combining their ingenuity and resources to support the vital role of school-based meals in health and education.