President Biden and Vice President Harris campaigned on the theme to Build Back Better. To do exactly that, the incoming administration should strengthen the foundation created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act—passed 10 years ago last month—and work to permanently extend healthy school meals to all students. The federal government is already allowing schools to serve every student free meals during the COVID-19 crisis, making now the moment to end student hunger for good.
More than 30 million children regularly eat school breakfast and lunch. With schools shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19, 27% of families with children are now worrying where their next meal will come from, and the longer-term economic crisis will likely leave millions teetering on the brink of food insecurity for years to come.
We know that children in food-insecure families are less likely to succeed in school. We also know that, with free meals for all, the new administration can make real the promise of educational opportunity. Studies show that free meals improve students’ academic performance and behavior. They also increase participation in school meal programs—programs that teach children good eating habits.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act strengthened school nutrition standards and made it easier to serve low-income students the meals they so need. The Act succeeded in reducing the risk of obesity for children in poverty. Without this legislation, obesity rates among this cohort would have been 47% higher. Now, students who eat school meals every day have better diets than students who do not. They eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains, reducing the long-term health effects and healthcare costs of diet-related diseases. But the Act’s promise of free meals has yet to be fully realized.
The Act’s Community Eligibility Provision allows the highest poverty schools to provide meals at no cost. This provision has radically expanded low-income students’ access to school meals and reduced the administrative burden on schools. But not all eligible schools take advantage of the provision, and poorer students in higher-income schools may be left behind. Free meals for all could help ensure that students from families on the edge of eligibility, who are homeless, who are in foster care, or who have recently immigrated do not fall through the cracks.
Considering how we can improve upon the existing model, I’m reminded of a geometry exercise that I assigned my former students. In the aftermath of another crisis, Hurricane Katrina, my second graders constructed new designs for our school building using toilet paper rolls, tissue boxes, and construction paper. Applying what they had learned about two- and three-dimensional objects, my students did not replicate images found in the periodicals they looked to for inspiration. Instead, they produced simpler structures, less complicated and cluttered than both the magazine models and their former school building.
The same thinking should apply here. A simple, strong structure for school meals—a structure that provides free meals for all—could enable cooks to prioritize healthy meals prepared with fresh ingredients. Staff could reduce time processing, verifying income, and accounting for free and reduced price meal applications, potentially saving $14.50 per student per year. Teachers could spend more time planning lessons and less time chasing families for forms. And most importantly, our nation’s children could live healthier, more productive lives.
Now is the time to build back better. The current crisis has highlighted the essential role that school meals play in students’ daily lives. When schools reopen next year, rather than recreate a meals program based on the former fractured model, President Biden should take a cue from my former second grade students. He should consider the lessons we have learned this year and commit to a simpler, more elegant design. He should commit to free school meals for all.
By Julia McCarthy, Deputy Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University
Image Credit: Food Ed Hub – Teachers College, Columbia University