Free school meals for all children can improve children’s health

SEATTLE, WA – MARCH 18: Christy Cusick distributes free school meals to children and their parents at Olympic Hills Elementary School on March 18, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Due to the closure of all schools in Washington state due to the COVID-19 outbreak until at least April 27, Seattle public schools are offering take-out meals for students during lunch hours . (Photo by Karen Ducey / Getty Images)

(THE CONVERSATION) Recognizing that millions of American children are risk of hunger, Maine and California approved funding to provide free school meals to all students in their state. Meanwhile, a bill proposed to Congress aims to make free school meals a permanent feature in all states.

The Universal School Canteen Program Act provide free healthy meals and snacks to all children in public and private non-profit schools, regardless of income.

Currently, the US Department of Agriculture allowed school districts to provide free meals to families during the pandemic. Previously scheduled to expire in September, the policy has been extended until the school year 2021-2022. This is the first time in the 75 years of history of the National School Lunch Program that all U.S. public school children have equal access to school meals, no questions asked.

Like a registered dietitian nutritionist and searcher who specializes in children food insecurity, I often see how access and availability nutritious food can shape children’s health.

When children return to school in the fall, exemptions from current policies provide an opportunity to examine how universal free school meals impact on nutrition in school meal programs and health inequalities in children.

Better health

Good nutrition plays a crucial role in good school results. School meals have been shown to reduce childhood food insecurity and childhood overweight and obesity while improving overall food quality.

School meals are often more nutritious than meals eaten somewhere else or even homemade breakfasts. Studies have shown that access to school meals can improve attendance, academic performance and behviour.

Less stigma

Many children, especially those from low-income and minority families, eat up to half of their daily calories at school. For these families, the cost of school meals, generally between US $ 2.48 and US $ 2.74 depending on the grade level, can quickly add up over a week, a month or a school year.

Children with past due meal debts could be shameful, refused a meal, or provided another less expensive meal – such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk rather than the standard meal served to other students.

Need relief

School meal programs are run like a business and depend heavily on the federal government refunds from the US Department of Agriculture. When families cannot or do not pay for the meals served, schools may need to use their own funds to cover losses. The Ministry of Agriculture prohibited from using federal funds to pay off an unpaid meal debt. The Universal School Meal Program Act eliminate approximately $ 10.9 million unpaid school meal debt reported by 75% of American school districts.

In addition to the school meal debt, in the first full year of the pandemic, schools served less meals, resulting in further loss of income. Meals served were more expensive due to the packaging and personal protective equipment for the staff. As a result, more than 50% of school meal programs declared a financial loss in 2019-2020. Even more programs say they expect a loss to the 2020-2021 school year.

Return on investment

A national study found that schools participating in universal free meal programs reduced their costs per meal while maintaining the nutritional quality of the meals served. School meals can stimulate local economies because they can stimulate purchases from local farmers and breeders and create jobs in school nutrition, food production, sales and distribution.

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For school districts, moving to a universal model of meals for all children – regardless of income – is likely to reduce administrative burdens. Schools would no longer have to waste time on claims and meeting reporting requirements as they have to under the current reimbursement model. Instead, they could focus on healthy meals and nutrition education.

I believe that the ROI of universal school lunches would benefit our country’s economic recovery from the pandemic as well as the health and well-being of our country’s children.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here:

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