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School Meals Are a Lifeline for America’s Kids and Families

Families pick up school meals at a food distribution site.
Families pick up school meals at a food distribution site.

Santana Lee fostered and then adopted three of her younger cousins. Preparing meals for her adopted children became a serious challenge when COVID-19 forced schools to close.

“I will say for me, dealing with COVID-19 was really stressful, especially in the beginning because it hit us out of nowhere. Going from regular school into homeschooling was a lot. To have to prepare meals more often throughout the day when I wasn’t expecting to was a big adjustment.”

During a typical school year, Lee is able to rely on school meals to help ensure her children are well nourished.

“One of the biggest reasons why they were afraid to close school was because the majority of the kids mostly eat at school. So if they’re not going to have school, how are the kids going to eat? So food was a big concern.”

In response to the pandemic, the Milwaukee Public School District in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Lee’s family lives, developed “Stop, Grab & Go” locations where families can pick up school meals. Breakfast and lunch are free for all students and children under the age of 18. 

There are stories like this from just about every city and town across America. That’s because the foods that schools provide through their meals programs really matter to kids and families.  They matter because they help kids eat a balanced and healthy diet. They introduce kids to a variety of fruits, vegetables and dishes that they may otherwise not have the opportunity to try. 

young girl holding a plate of healthy snacks
Research shows school meals have become healthier thanks to updated nutrition standards that went into effect during the 2012-13 school year.

Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nation’s school breakfast and lunch programs, shows that school meals are significantly more healthy thanks to updated nutrition standards that were put in place nearly a decade ago. USDA also found that student participation in meal programs is highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals. Another study links healthier school meals with a significant drop in risk for obesity for children growing up in families with low incomes, finding the obesity rate was 47 percent lower among these children than it would have been without the updated nutrition standards. Researchers estimated this translated to roughly 500,000 fewer cases of obesity in 2018.

School breakfasts and lunches also play a critical role in preventing children from experiencing hunger. These meals are a primary source of nutrients for tens of millions of kids–about 51% of students nationwide qualify for free or reduced-price school meals because they live in poverty or near-poverty. 

Before COVID-19, when schools were physically open, nearly 30 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participated in the School Breakfast Program. While schools in many states remain closed, food service staff have responded to ensure children and families in need have enough food. 

For Anntesha Chesterton, who takes care of both her biological children and her adopted niece and nephews in Las Vegas, Nevada, both school meals and SNAP have been invaluable resources to help feed her family during the pandemic. 

fruits and vegetables

SNAP

Feeding Children as the Pandemic Struck

Anntesha speaks to her colleague Alison about the joys and challenges of being a grandfamily caregiver, and the resources that have helped her along the way, including school meals. “Since everything was shut down, it was really hard to access resources like SNAP. I knew when all of this happened that I needed to get SNAP benefits right away, because I would have a house full of kids and not enough money to be able to feed them.”

See the full story on everyFamilyForward.org

Sonya Begay, who lives in Frederick, Maryland with her three adopted grandchildren, struggles with transportation issues, as do many grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Begay and her granddaughter, Kayle, are closely connected to their family members who live on a Navajo reservation where supplies are short. Begay explains that school meals are a critical source of food for many families who now need extra support from food banks and nonproflt organizations.

“COVID-19 is a big change. For some of our friends, their children have to be fed in the morning, they have to be fed at lunch, and the expenses for food are not within their budget, because, of course, they got free lunch at school. So, there’s not enough resources for them to meet this additional expense for their food.”

Transportation is also a challenge for rural families in Georgia’s Burke County Public Schools (BCPS). The district built a partnership with the local school bus system to deliver meals to families who lack access to transportation. Schylea Williams is both a teacher and parent at BCPS. 

“Healthy school meals matter because they meet a fundamental need when it comes to learning. Students who are hungry have a hard time concentrating and have increased ‘brain fog’ during the learning day. But students who have access to healthy school meals have an advantage over those who don’t: they are being given the opportunity to fuel their bodies for better learning.”

Williams believes that continuing school meals during the summer was essential to helping families in need during the COVID-19 shut down. 

A family picks up school meals from a nearby bus stop in Burke County, Georgia.
Photo courtesy of Burke County Public Schools

“As a parent of two BCPS students, I can personally tell you the importance of school meals. BCPS’ summer meals program allowed for fewer trips to the grocery store in the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown. Also, the variety of fruits and vegetables offered broadened my children’s exposure to foods that they would normally not choose and things that are not readily available at our local grocery store. They loved the variety of foods served daily.”  

Helping kids eat a healthy, balanced diet was a challenge for millions of parents before the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis and economic downturn have made it even harder for millions more to ensure their children have enough healthy food each day. These challenging times underscore the critical role school meals have in helping children across the country grow up healthy. 

Read more about how school districts have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, as through the pandemic, they’ve fed millions of children and families nationwide.

Published on October 14, 2020


Community Story

Innovative Heroes, Ensuring No Child or Family Goes Hungry During COVID-19

Six school nutrition professionals from the Midwest to the East Coast share their inspirational stories about helping to ensure that kids and families have healthy foods during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Priority Policy

School Meals and Snacks

Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide more than 29 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. 

See The Policy