Universal free school meals will help accomplish three key goals
More families–particularly families with low incomes–will have enough to eat.
Since March, more than 40 million people in the United States have filed new unemployment claims. The national unemployment rate has jumped to 13.3 percent, with even higher rates among Black and Latinx Americans. With more families losing their livelihoods and extra federal unemployment insurance benefits set to expire at the end of July, putting food on the table will be tougher. We’re already seeing this happening. The Institute for Policy Research estimates that food insecurity rates doubled overall and tripled for families with children between March and April 2020 due to spikes in unemployment and greater difficulty accessing school meals.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has released a series of health equity principles to guide state and local reopening and recovery efforts to ensure that families that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and resulting downturn get the help they need to get back on their feet. One of the pillars of our framework is proactively identifying and addressing existing policy gaps–which includes the expansion of school meals programs to more children.
More children will receive healthy meals that help them grow, learn, and thrive.
Healthier school meal nutrition standards have worked exactly as intended since implementation began nearly a decade ago. USDA’s research shows that the nutrition content of school meals has increased significantly, and student participation in meal programs is highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals.
In fact, research published in Health Affairs just this week shows that the healthier school meals are associated with a significant decrease in the risk for obesity among children growing up in families with low incomes. The authors calculated that the obesity rate among these children in 2018 was 47 percent lower than it would have been without the healthier school meals standards, translating to roughly 500,000 fewer cases of obesity.
Healthier meals are good not only for students’ wellbeing, but can also help them succeed in the classroom. For instance, research shows that eating regular breakfast, including breakfast at school, has cognitive benefits, including a mainly positive effect on on-task behavior in the classroom and children’s academic performance.
Schools will be spared financial and administrative burdens.
Figuring out how to reopen schools during a pandemic is an incredibly difficult challenge. When should students return? How many should be in the building at one time? Can students even sit in the cafeteria? There is no set playbook to follow.
School districts are facing enormous logistical and operational challenges ahead of the 2020-21 school year, and meal service is no exception. Per a recent School Nutrition Association survey, more than 860 school districts nationwide reported combined estimated financial losses from food service programs of more than $626 million due to the impacts of COVID-19. With the number of children who would otherwise qualify for free and reduced-price meals expected to jump significantly, the federal government should step in to ensure that every child is properly fed during the school day at no expense to schools or families.
For more than 70 years, students have relied on national school meals programs to keep them healthy and help them learn, but their importance to our health and wellbeing has never been greater. Universal free school meals won’t solve every challenge associated with this pandemic, but it is a key component of a safe and equitable recovery.