In late April, it was announced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that universal free lunch, one of the most effective methods of combating childhood food insecurity, would be extended through the 2021-2022 school year.
Access to food is critical at every age. For children, it is particularly vital for both their learning and their development.
According to Carol Fazioli, MANNA’s Health and Nutrition Program Manager, “children facing hunger are more likely to experience higher diagnoses of asthma and anemia, developmental delays in language and motor skills and have more social and behavioral problems.” Programs such as universal free lunches in schools also “play an important role in supporting obesity prevention, overall student health and academic achievement by improving children’s diets and combatting hunger.”
Aside from academic and developmental benefits, universal free lunches help to normalize food security support at a young age. Through the removal of student lunch debt, schools would be removing the stigma that surrounds the absence of funds and not having any food to eat, while their peers enjoy a filling and nutritious meal.
The importance of universal school meals cannot be understated.
“Universal school meals would be a game-changer for children not having enough to eat at home,” says Beth Stahl, MANNA’s Youth Programs Manager. “No more unpaid balances at the cafeteria would alleviate stress on families’ finances and kids would have access to more nutritious food, such as fruit, vegetables and milk.”
According to researchers, schools are the healthiest place Americans are eating. Following the passage of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, our country has seen an equitable improvement in the quality and nutritional value of school lunches. These improvements showcase the importance of student access to these meals.
As schools begin to move back to in-person learning and people continue to struggle financially in the after-math of the pandemic, access to school lunches are more critical than ever to ensuring a food secure childhood for many of our region’s children.
The universal free lunch program provides a unique opportunity for our country and how we fight food insecurity. According to Carol Fazioli, “through government investment in school nutrition programs, such as universal free lunches, we can improve childhood nutrition, health and school performance. This is what can happen when ALL students are invited to the table for a nutritious, free meal.”