If we tell you that a child who is hungry has a harder time learning than one who is not, you’ll tell us that’s a no-brainer, right?
Yet, our state — along with most in the country — has ended universal school meals for all kids as pandemic dollars have gone away to support it. We are seeing school breakfast and lunch participation plummet across Colorado and the nation, and that’s a problem that should concern us all.
Before we ask you to agree with us based solely on common sense, let us lay out the research and practical experience.
Research draws a direct correlation between access to healthy, nutritious food and student achievement. Kids who have nutritious diets have stronger development and typically perform better in the classroom.
But within our school structures, we don’t treat meals as critical to learning. We don’t argue when schools make investments in technology or textbooks to enhance learning.
We don’t disagree when physical education and arts are included in an essential school day. So why, when we know through both common sense and established science, that access to food is essential, do we argue over who pays? When they can’t afford to eat, our kids are the ones who pay.
We live in a culture that values education while completely disregarding the fact that in order to learn, your brain needs nutritious food.
And before you decide this issue doesn’t impact your family because you can afford school breakfast and lunch for your child, remember this: All children are in classrooms together and each child’s learning, or lack of learning, impacts the class as a whole.
The student who opted out of lunch because they knew there was no money in their account and didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends, is distracted and hungry and sitting across from your well-fed child.
Beyond the value of school meals to everyone who cares about educating our children, there is also an inherent value to our schools. School meal programs are effectively non-profit restaurants where the kids are the “customers.” School nutrition programs typically operate on razor thin margins.
Federal reimbursements for meals served are low and districts must backfill the costs not covered. Any additional revenue that can be brought in above and beyond the program costs goes right back into supporting the program.
Federal law requires this. So, the more students who eat a school meal, the more opportunities these programs have to focus on improving meal quality, creating culturally relevant meals and buying more local products from local producers.
Moving to a model where every child has access to a meal at no-cost increases participation, bringing increased revenue into these programs so they can begin moving towards offering higher-quality options and creating a school meal that is more than “just a meal,” it becomes an educational opportunity and a way to support our local and regional food systems.
It is easy to critique the quality of school meals, however so many of these programs are managing extremely tight budgets, dealing with increased food and supply costs, working in kitchens that are not designed to cook from scratch and managing a team of workers with limited cooking skills. The more barriers we create for kids to use school meal programs, the harder it is to improve those programs. Opening up the door so that any student can access a meal frees up precious administrative time and increases access to resources that can support the development of a robust school meal program.
So why wouldn’t we do it? This year, Coloradans have a chance to change the way we pay for school meals for every student, ensuring that all kids have all the resources they need to succeed academically and supporting our school nutrition programs as they work to improve.
We should all educate ourselves on this common-sense topic and then move our state back to ensuring that every student has access to a nutritious breakfast and lunch anytime they need it.
Executive Director Wendy Peters Moschetti and Director of Healthy Food Initiatives Jessica Wright are advocates at Nourish Colorado, a nonprofit focused on strengthening connections between farms and communities so that all Coloradans have equitable access to fresh, nutritious foods. They are also members of the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council, which advances recommendations that strengthen healthy food access for all Coloradans through Colorado agriculture and local food systems and economies.