Federal funding that has provided free breakfast and lunch at school for all students during the pandemic is likely ending this summer. We can ensure that, while at school, every child is fed and ready to learn by passing S.100 in Vermont which would allow every student to access the nutrition they need during the school day.
There is growing evidence that school meals benefit children’s health and wellbeing (Hecht et al. 2020). Studies consistently find universal free meals to improve school meal participation rates. There is also promising evidence for the benefit of school meals on food security, which aligns with priorities outlined in the Vermont Agriculture and Food System Strategic Plan 2021-2030. The benefits appear to be greatest for children and adolescents who are food insecure and those that are ‘near eligible’ using existing measures of eligibility based on household income (Cohen et al. 2021).
Here in Vermont, our research has shown elevated levels of food insecurity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with households with children among those with the greatest risk (McCarthy et al. 2022; Niles et al. 2020). Notably, even as we transition from pandemic to endemic, rates of food insecurity remain above pre-pandemic levels (McCarthy et al. 2022). While troubling, this aligns with what we have seen in past economic downturns. For example, it took over ten years after the Great Recession for food insecurity rates to return to levels documented before 2008 (Coleman-Jensen et al. 2021).
Universal meals also provide indirect benefits. For instance, providing free school meals for all students reduces the administrative burden on cafeteria staff. In one government study, school meal officials reported that this provided staff with additional time to focus on improving meal quality, nutrition education, and professional development, and teachers with additional time to devote to instruction (Robinson, 1994).
There is growing evidence that universal school meals are a win-win that supports students’ health and sets them up to be in the best position to learn. Please join me and the American Heart Association in urging your senators to support S.100.
Cohen, J.F.W.; Hecht, A.A.; McLoughlin, G.M.; Turner, L.; Schwartz, M.B. Universal School Meals and Associations with Student Participation, Attendance, Academic Performance, Diet Quality, Food Security, and Body Mass Index: A Systematic Review. Nutrients 2021, 13, 911. https://doi.org/10.3390/ nu13030911
Coleman-Jensen, A.; Rabbitt, M.P.; Gregory, C.A.; Singh, A. Households Food Security in the United States in 2020. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service 2021. https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=102075
Hecht, A.A.; Pollack Porter, K.M.; Turner, L. Impact of The Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act on Student Nutrition, Behavior, and Academic Outcomes: 2011–2019. Am J Public Health2020, 110:1405–1410. doi:10.2105/ AJPH.2020.305743
McCarthy, A.C.; Belarmino, E.H.; Bertmann, F.; Niles, M.T. Food Security Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Longitudinal Evidence from a Cohort of Adults in Vermont during the First Year. Nutrients 2022, 14, 1358. https://doi.org/10.3390/ nu14071358
Niles, M.T.; Bertmann, F.; Belarmino, E.H.; Wentworth, T.; Biehl, E.; Neff, R. The Early Food Insecurity Impacts of COVID-19. Nutrients 2020, 12, 2096; doi:10.3390/nu12072096
Robinson, R.A. Food Assistance: Early Results of USDA’s No-Fee School Meal Pilot Program; Report to U.S.; Government Accountability Office (GAO): Washington, DC, USA, 1994.