Back-to-School Series, Part 3: Access to healthy school meals is key to better behavior and learning

Over the past few days we’ve examined investments in education, like Pre-K, and improving school performance through the earned income tax credit. In Part 3 of our back-to-school series, let’s take a closer look at two important parts of the school day – breakfast and lunch!, and see just how access to school meals and nutrition play a role in a child’s ability to excel in the classroom.

Having access to healthy meal options throughout the school day is key to children’s health and learning. For years, researchers have pointed to the link between hunger and poor behavior, attendance, and performance throughout the day. Currently, the average cost of a school lunch is about $2.25. Unfortunately, many children living in low-income households cannot afford this cost day in and day out. This means they forgo meals during the day, are hungry during class, and do not have the fuel they need to concentrate and learn. While the latest figures show about 60,000 Montana households receive access to quality and affordable food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), for many low-income children, breakfast and lunch provided through schools may be the only meal they have access to.

To help provide students with a healthy start that enables them to do well in school, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, what we now refer to as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Today, the NSLP provides federal subsidies to cover the cost of free and reduced priced breakfasts, lunches, milk, after-school snacks, and even summer meals for 30 million students each year. To date, among schools participating in the NSLP, 43% of public school students are eligible to receive free or reduced meals in Montana.

While more schools should adopt higher nutrition standards to ensure that meals are healthy, Congress gave the NSLP a nutrition overhaul in 2010, which increased nutrition requirements and outlined specific foods that need to be offered in schools participating in the NSLP. Because of these requirements, school meals resemble less-and-less the pizzas, burgers, and fries we ate back in the day. Children now have healthier options to choose from, including more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat free or low-fat milks, and cafeterias with fewer sodium and sugar dense snacks. Further, as a part of the 2010 reform, the Community Eligibility Provision was enacted to give schools located in high-income areas the ability to provide all children in the school breakfast and lunch for free. This provision relieves high-poverty schools from the administrative burden of collecting and processing individual meal applications and enables faculty more time to attend to children’s nutritional needs.

With school meals increasingly becoming healthier and access to breakfast and lunch options becoming affordable through the NSLP, students will literally have the “brain-food” they need to concentrate and perform better throughout the school day.


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