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Healthy school meals should be available to all U.S. students – permanently

Students get lunch of homemade pizza and caesar salad at the Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School, in Essex Junction, Vt., Thursday, June 9, 2022. The pandemic-era federal aid that made school meals available for free to all public school students — regardless of family income levels — is ending, raising fears about the effects in the upcoming school year for families already struggling with rising food and fuel costs. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Back to school season is generally a time of hope and optimism. But for families whose children rely on free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch, this school year is off to a confusing and stressful start. Our students deserve better.  

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented a waiver program that allowed public schools to serve free meals to all students for the 2020-21 school year. The program also offered schools flexibility around when and how they could serve meals, which was critical during an unpredictable time of school closures and supply chain shortages. Alongside other pandemic aid, the program helped relieve hunger — U.S. food insecurity levels in 2020 did not statistically change from 2019 levels, due to programs like this one. 

While the Keep Kids Fed Act extended these critical waivers through the summer, we are now in a position where as of Sept. 30, we need leaders to act — again — so that millions of students do not go hungry.  

It’s well-known that school meals benefit students, resulting in fewer visits to the nurse, improved attendance, better test scores, and more. What’s less well-known is that every dollar invested in U.S. school meal programs returns $2 in societal benefits by improving health outcomes and reducing childhood poverty.

Last fall, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Center for Good Food Purchasing released the True Cost of Food: School Meals Case Study, which calculated the total costs and benefits of U.S. school meal programs. The case study found that these programs generate $40 billion in health and economic equity benefits — more than twice what’s spent to run them — for a net value of more than $20 billion every year. That rate of return, which would make any investor envious, calls for more investment, not less. 

Eighty four percent of low-income households with school-age children access free or reduced-price lunches at school. The financial benefit of receiving these meals lifts over 722,000 children above the poverty threshold, and addresses some of the factors associated with childhood poverty, including food insecurity.

Our case study found that new investments in school meal programs could create an additional $10 billion in annual benefits to society and help transform communities. By optimizing the ways schools purchase food, including sourcing from local suppliers, a comprehensive program could produce another $1.3 billion in annual net value. Food purchasing dollars can support local economies, worker livelihoods, and environmental health, while also generating more equitable returns to farmers, food workers, and suppliers of color.

School meals are healthier than the average American diet for most of the 30 million children who participate in national programs, scoring better than average on the Healthy Eating Index. On school days, these children consume as much as half their daily calories at school.

Increasing their nutrition quality even further by shifting away from processed meats and foods high in added sugar and sodium, and toward meals higher in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, could yield an additional $1.5 billion per year by helping to prevent diet-related diseases and providing environmental and climate benefits.  

And extending free meals to significantly more children, these programs could generate more than $7.5 billion in societal value each year. 

The extension of the USDA’s pandemic relief program was an important stop-gap measure. But to truly nourish the next generation of Americans, we need to stop passing months-long extensions and make healthy school meals available to all students — permanently. 

Federal leaders should be following the example set by California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont in adopting policies that deliver healthy school meals not only to the relief of students and their families, but to school districts and other community programs which are often tasked with helping to catch those students who fall through the cracks after not qualifying for reduced meals, but who continue to arrive at and depart from school hungry.

Roy Steiner is the Senior Vice President of Food Initiatives at The Rockefeller Foundation. 

Tags COVID-19 Food insecurity National School Lunch Program

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