Nov. 18, 2022
As soon as the lunch bell rings, students storm out of their classrooms and flood the cafeteria. Dozens of students form a line as they await a tray carrying the essential food groups and a carton of milk. Unfortunately, for far too many students, school meals are their only meals of the day.
The School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program make up the second-largest food safety net in the country, according to the health policy journal Health Affairs. The nonprofit organization American Action Forum reports that these programs provide 30 million healthy and nutritious meals to children and adolescents daily.
As schools moved to remote learning at the start of the pandemic, hungry students were no longer able to rely on school meals. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented the Universal School Meals Program, which lessened the financial strain families face and helped prevent children from going hungry.
The Universal Free Meals Program ended in June after Congress failed to extend it for the upcoming school year.
As hunger becomes a growing concern among students, it is vital that New Jersey schools make meals free for everyone. Considering that hungry children cannot concentrate on learning, feeding them is just as important to their education as math or English class.
Hungry students are more likely to score lower on standardized tests and repeat a grade, according to No Kid Hungry, a Washington, D.C.-based organization committed to ending hunger in the United States.
Additionally, an article published in the journal “Nutrients” reports that students in schools that serve universal meals do better than their counterparts in schools that do not provide meals to all. Children who face hunger are at a disadvantage when it comes to fully engaging with the world, and that includes the lessons their teachers present.
The National Education Association found that students who lack consistent access to food are also more likely to experience developmental impairments in areas like behavior, language and motor skills. Children need nutrients so they can grow and focus on learning instead of thinking about the food they need to survive.
Regardless of family income, there will always be children who end up without lunch at school. Perhaps their parents forgot to add money to their child’s food account or did not have time to prepare lunch for their child. Whatever the circumstances, a family’s income is not the only reason why a student may require free school meals.
Children need nutrients so they can grow and focus on learning instead of thinking about the food they need to survive.
School meals are one of the most effective methods for providing nutrition to children. They are more crucial than ever this year, as 14 million American children experience frequent hunger, according to the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.
To address this issue, Gov. Phil Murphy signed two bills in September that will help combat food insecurity among New Jersey students.
The first bill mandates that low- and middle-income kids in New Jersey schools receive free breakfasts and lunches.
The second bill ensures that school food authorities launch public awareness campaigns and create promotional materials to inform parents about the school meal programs available to them.
Together, the laws will contribute to ensuring fair access to resources that promote children’s nutrition and foster the financial security of working families.
ILLUSTRATION BY KYLA MARINO
Access to food has been especially jeopardized by inflation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September, food prices rose 11.2 percent compared to the previous year, increasing food insecurity among both adults and children.
As food costs grow, universal lunches would guarantee that every student, regardless of their family’s financial situation, has access to regular meals at school.
School meals should also be free for all students to eliminate the stigma associated with using a free meal program at school.
According to the Ford Foundation, whose stated goal is advancing human welfare, one in three students eligible for a free lunch goes hungry instead of claiming their free meal. Oftentimes the shame attached to identifying as a low-income child overrides a student’s desire for food.
Finally, eating together creates community. Kids benefit socially from eating together in the cafeteria rather than going out for lunch or retreating to a classroom to avoid being seen as the kid with no lunch.
School meals are not an accessory to education; the ability to learn completely collapses when students are hungry. School meals are the foundation for education, not a supplement to it. As school returns to normal in the wake of the pandemic, free lunch must also become the new normal.