March 21, 2022

School Meal Programs Play a Critical Role in Whole Child Health

As we observe National Nutrition Month, it is a great time to reflect on the critical role that school meals play in whole child health. Nothing has made this clearer than the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools shut down and school food service staff jumped into action to make sure that students continued to receive the nutritious meals that are essential to their health and academic success. 

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) serve nutritious meals to millions of children each day and have a huge impact on food and nutrition insecurity. On average, 30 million children receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 12 million children receive free or reduced-price breakfasts each day through these essential programs. There are numerous benefits to these programs including reduced hunger, improved nutritional status, increased social and emotional health, and better academic performance.  

As the end of National Nutrition Month approaches, there has been both good and bad news on the school nutrition front. Healthier Generation applauds the USDA for issuing flexibilities to the school meal nutrition standards to make it easier for districts to provide meals for the next two school years, while contending with continued pandemic impacts. Further, USDA plans to gather extensive stakeholder feedback to inform rulemaking on permanent school meal nutrition standards in the fall of 2022. Another positive note is that several states including California, Maine, and Washington have enacted state laws to offer free meals to all students beginning in SY 2022-2023. 

Healthier Generation is disappointed that the FY22 Omnibus Appropriations Bill passed in March failed to extend USDA’s waiver authority. Waivers have been in place for SY 2021-2022 and increased school nutrition program flexibilities, increased the reimbursement rates for school meals, and allowed all students to receive meals free of charge. These waivers are set to expire, which will cause undue burden to families and school nutrition program operators.

Many children will no longer qualify for free meals because their families do not meet the income eligibility requirements. In addition, families who can qualify will have to complete time consuming paperwork to enroll their children. Either way, many children will not receive meals and/or school lunch debt will increase. School districts may receive financial penalties for failing to meet the nutritional standards for school meals, even when it is the result of rising food costs, supply chain issues, or staffing shortages – all of which they have no control over. 

As our nation begins to envision a path forward out of the pandemic, children must have access to the supports that they need to be successful in school and in life.

Healthier Generation will continue to advocate for greater access to and more funding for the NSLP and SBP, provide training and technical assistance to school nutrition program staff, and engage families and the community in creating environments where every mind, every body, every young person is healthy and ready to succeed. 

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