School lunch/cafeteria (291315)
School lunch/cafeteria Credit: Pixino/Public Domain/Amanda Mills, USCDCP

(StatePoint) Starting in early 2020, every child in the United States became eligible for school meals at no cost, regardless of family income level — no forms, no questions asked. That policy, along with other interventions, including increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, Children Program benefits, kept millions of children and families from going hungry during the pandemic. But support for school meals ended this September, putting healthy school meals increasingly out of reach for children who rely on them for nearly half their daily calories and a consistent source of good nutrition.

Amid soaring food prices, rising rates of nutrition and food insecurity, and families having a harder time accessing nutritious foods in their communities, advocates at the American Heart Association say that Congress’s failure to extend healthy school meals is already having profound consequences.

For more than two years, the country has seen food insecurity rates stay relatively stagnant. Pandemic-era assistance helped ensure that already high rates of families struggling to feed their kids did not worsen. However, with these policies ending and food costs skyrocketing, early data from 2022 suggest that food insecurity is quickly on the rise. Food insecurity disproportionately affects households with children (14.8%), Hispanic households (17%), Black households (21%) and households living at or below the federal poverty line (35%). This crisis also comes at a time when households across America are facing delayed health care, barriers to affordable housing, and a general financial squeeze caused by rising prices on consumer goods.

“Providing healthy school meals for students at no charge is a recipe for success that reduces food insecurity, improves children’s diets and academic performance, generates critical revenue for schools and decreases stigma,” according to Nancy Brown, CEO, American Heart Association. “Action by the federal government is long overdue. It is a necessity for families and schools to feed children the healthy meals they need for success.”

Kids who eat well perform better in school. However, access to food is just part of the issue. The American Heart Association points out that with pre-pandemic numbers of more than 15 million school breakfasts and 30 million school lunches served every day, what children put on their plates has a significant impact on their overall health and well-being.

“Federal programs including SNAP and the Summer Food Service program have been integral to addressing hunger, but many policies focus on improving access to sufficient quantities of food,” says Brown. “While this goal is critically important, especially in mitigating the effects of poverty, we must modernize these policies and programs to also focus on food quality, so people have access to enough nutritious food.”

There are opportunities for the federal government to change course and ensure that every child across the country has access to free, nutritious foods at school. The White House recently released a national strategy to end nutrition and food insecurity and mitigate the effects of diet-related chronic diseases in the United States by 2030, making the recommendation for healthy school meals for all and strong nutrition standards. Additionally, a key committee in the House of Representatives has passed a child nutrition reauthorization bill that would protect and strengthen nutrition standards for school meals and help millions of children gain access to healthy school meals, among other updates to child nutrition programs. Advocates at the American Heart Association say that the Senate now needs to do its part to give children the best chance to succeed. To learn more, visit https://act.yourethecure.org/tqmwpbx.

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