How School Lunches May Be Helping All Kids

The Lempert Report
May 10, 2021

The more that families participate in the school lunch program, the better it will be

Drew Himmelstein wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in The Jewish News of Northern California that made me stop and think about school lunches in a different way. She wrote that when her oldest son started kindergarten four years ago, it was the first year that New York City implemented free universal lunch and breakfast for all students. That meant that for every meal served during the school day, all the kids at his Brooklyn school could get in the cafeteria line and help themselves. No lunch money, no special accounts for low-income children. Free food for all. She said that it was an important step to improve health and nutrition for students, it reduced the stigma attached to getting free and reduced-priced meals, and it made her daily life so much easier. Obviously since she didn’t have to plan and prepare the lunch that her son would have to carry to school – and then there is the reality that kids, at least I know that I did, would trade that carefully prepared lunch for someone else’s lunch. She writes that she is here to tell you that regardless of your family income and whether or not you have packed your child lunches in years past, you should have your child eat school meals. Here’s why: It’s nutritious. School lunches have to meet USDA nutrition standards that limit the amount of fat and saturated fat. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 and implemented in 2012, required that schools serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limit high-fat and high-starch food. Studies have found that kids who eat lunch at school are eating more nutritious meals as a result of the law. And for some kids, those meals are the most important nutrition they get all day. During the last administration, a lot of the work that former First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Sam Kass, did to improve school lunch nutrition was eradicated by Sonny Perdue. Now many of those school systems are going back to limiting added sugars, adding more whole grains and limiting sodium. Back to the Obama plan. Here is what Drew wrote that I never thought about before: the more that families participate in the school lunch program, the better it will be. When more students eat lunch, more money is coming into the system. In previous years, students who didn’t qualify for free and reduced meals supported the lunch program by paying for their lunches. This year, the USDA will reimburse school districts for all lunches, but only for meals that are served. That means that every time your child eats a school meal, your local lunch program will get more money from the federal government. More money means more resources to improve quality. Imagine, she says, if the National School Lunch Program garnered that type of esteem that Medicare or Social Security has earned. It might actually get the support and funding it deserves.

What’s more, the stigma against getting free and reduced-price lunches would disappear. Drew ends her column with a note of reality. After more than a year living through a pandemic, being locked down with your children, enduring remote schooling, telecommuting and all the stresses and sacrifices of this year, take this one thing off your plate. Don’t pack lunch in the morning. The long term effect on our next generations health and nutrition could well make it worth it.