Lack of a healthy lunch at school hurts students more than you think

Lack of a healthy lunch at school hurts students more than you think
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Earlier this year, parents of students in the Wyoming Valley West School District received collection letters on the money they owed for student lunches. According to WNEP, in the letters, the school district wrote, “you can be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child's right to food. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care."

The letters sparked outrage over the schools’ extreme over aggression by stating that children may be taken away from their parents over something as trivial as a school lunch debt.

But the remark regarding “neglecting your child’s right to food” also underscored the broader issue of the responsibility educational institutions have to provide healthy and affordable lunches to students.

A nutritious and affordable lunch should not merely be an occasional “option” provided by schools. Educational policymakers must be aware of the risks of not maintaining healthy meal programs, as well as how these programs can be initiated while still in contingency with more substantial budget guidelines.

Lack of affordable options leads to poor physical health outcomes

Education leaders and administrators may not understand how organic school meals can be to ensuring a student meets their daily nutritional needs. Students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often receive their only healthy meal of the day while at school.

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If those students don’t have access to the nutritious options provided by the school, they may turn to low cost, processed foods that are high in calories but sparse in nutrients. Immediate effects of this type of diet include weight gain and poor physical health. Long-term impacts range from increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and a slew of other unfortunate health outcomes.

The frequency of these meals is vital as well. Students who can eat consistent healthy lunches obtain a stronger understanding of the benefits of nutritious eating habits, especially if they come from families and homes where similar practices aren’t embraced regularly.

Lack of healthy lunch can lead to poor mental health outcomes

There is a reason why eating foods that are high in sugar and certain fats may leave us feeling fatigued and depressed. There is science behind why we feel energized, alert, and reinvigorated after eating foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients.

Eating healthy foods directly impacts our mental health. This is especially true for K-12 students whose brains are still developing. A student who does not maintain steady dietary habits may suffer in their academic performance. They may also face adverse emotional health outcomes, such as anxiety and depression, as a result of their eating habits.

But a student lacking access to healthy food can face other adverse mental and emotional health outcomes that aren’t directly related to the food itself.

For example, a student may be caught in a situation where they are denied a meal because of failure to make payments on their lunch account. Another peer with their smartphone out and Snapchat open can immediately capture that moment and share with the larger student body. The entire ordeal could be traumatic for the initial student and generate long-lasting emotional scars.

Schools can find inventive ways to provide healthy eating options.

Similar to how it can be cheaper for families to purchase processed foods, public schools often operate under strict budget constraints, and healthy food options may not make their list of priorities. Even within these limited financial options, there are alternative opportunities for schools to provide healthy lunches.

According to a 2018 report published in the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management that focused on school meal programs in individual rural districts, some practices that were effective in successful lunch programs included reducing food prices by joining a food cooperative and employing inventive serving strategies, such as letting students choose their ingredients at a salad bar.

Another recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts noted how local businesses in a district’s community can provide funding for necessary kitchen infrastructure and equipment upgrades, which are often vital in providing healthy eating options. 

Naturally, not all schools will be able to employ the same strategies in regards to their meal programs. But administrators and education officials must realize that additional funding and serving options do exist beyond what has been initially provided in a school budget.

Dr. Rachel Borton is the director of the Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) online program and an assistant professor of nursing at Bradley University.