We underestimate how much impact free healthy school lunches can have on students’ lives. In fact, in the United States school lunches are often a subject of mockery. Everyone has a story about how their schools had disgusting frozen green beans, corn dogs that bounce a foot in the air when dropped, and generally poor-tasting food. But many do not question why so many students receive such poor quality food at school, nor do most people recognize the long-lasting impacts on achievement due to inequitable access to healthy food.
While most schools have a free or reduced lunch program for their low-income students, many of these schools do not have access to healthy food options due to a lack of adequate funding. Federal reimbursement for these school lunches is only slightly over one dollar per meal per student, according to the FDA. So schools often have to resort to cheaper, less healthy alternatives. But according to the USDA, studies show that students who eat more nutritious meals throughout the day have lower absence rates, higher test scores, and better classroom behavior. High-quality food provides youth with the necessary nutrients for normal physical, mental, and emotional development. Thus, it comes as no surprise that equitable access to healthy school lunches plays a vital role in closing the achievement gap that plagues low-income students.
Despite the research, the topic of free school lunches is still controversial in some states. Read further to learn more about the importance of healthy school lunches, the backlash against free school lunches, and initiatives you can take to ensure every student has reliable access to healthy food.
Food insecurity among American children is a problem that is more common than we may assume. According to the USDA’s recent surveys, over six million children are impacted by food insecurity yearly, and this is mostly due to financial hardships. This, combined with the proliferation of “food deserts” in low-income areas, where fast food restaurants are more common than supermarkets, leads to unstable and unhealthy eating habits. Children in low-income families simply do not have equitable access to regular nutritious meals.
We all know that constantly eating junk food can have negative impacts on one’s health, but many do not know that lack of access to healthy lunches actually diminishes a student’s capacity to learn. A recent study found that students who frequently ate unhealthy food in fifth grade had worse academic performance in eighth grade. This exacerbates existing educational inequities. For most low-income students, free healthy school lunches will be the only nutritious meal they get each day.
Free School Lunches: Why Not?
No-cost school lunches are often opposed by community members and officials due to their low nutritional quality. Because of budgetary constraints, the average US school only has approximately $1.30 to spend on lunch for each child, which must include the cost of the food, as well as any labor, equipment, electricity, and other costs. Thus, many schools opt for low-cost foods, such as chips, pizza, ice cream, and other “junk food.” Opponents of free school lunches argue that it is better for students to bring lunches from home.
The problem that these naysayers fail to recognize is that most families living in poverty cannot afford to pack healthy lunches for their children, so free school lunches may well be the only access to food they have each day. This is evident during the summer months when many students do not get the same access to school lunches that they do during the school year. Business Insider finds that during parts of the year when students do not have access to free school lunches, 43% of families find it more difficult to make ends meet, and can only afford unhealthy lunches – or none at all – for children. Over time, hungry students experience a more pronounced “summer slide”; that is, they forget things that they learned during the previous school year, putting them further behind their peers when the new school year begins. The implications are clear: when schools don’t provide their students with healthy school lunches, the learning and achievement of our youth are negatively impacted.
Furthermore, because the guidelines for free and reduced lunch access can be complex, not all students who need this service can access it, even during the school year. Applications can be unclear and confusing, especially to parents who do not have the information and documents required for the forms, who do not speak English as their first language, or who struggle with reading and math. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when food insecurity was at its peak, millions more students received access to free and reduced school lunches via a simple waiver. But most have since been switched back to paid lunches, and many students living in poverty no longer have access to free healthy school lunches. In short, the achievement gap, already strained by the inequities of COVID-19, is being further exacerbated as children who previously had access to healthy school lunches have suddenly lost access.
Healthy school lunches are a vital component of children’s learning. Given that many families cannot afford healthy lunches for their children, providing kids access to quality free and reduced high-quality school lunches is vitally important to ensuring that their cognitive skills stay sharp and their scores remain high.
You can help! Join national organizations, like the Food Research and Action Center, to advocate for free healthy school lunches across the United States. Petition local and state governments to provide no-cost healthy lunches to low-income children via simple enrollment processes. This type of involvement results in change! In fact, thanks to the work of activists and lawmakers, Illinois recently passed a bill that provides opt-in funding for healthy free lunches and breakfasts in all public schools. Change is definitely possible and, with COVID’s free lunch program giving us a great testing ground, it’s time to fight for it.
However, solving educational inequity does not stop at providing students in poverty with access to healthy food. All students also deserve equitable access to high-quality learning support. Educate. Radiate. Elevate. is an education nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the achievement gap by providing underserved students with proven-effective one-on-one tutoring – at no cost to their families. As you can see from the results displayed on our Impact page, our students have improved their mastery of core subjects as well as their social-emotional skills. Join our efforts to uplift underprivileged youth by making a donation or volunteering with us.