Healthy School Meals for All: A National Priority

October 19, 2022 | Written By:

A few weeks ago, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health took place, the first conference of its kind in over 50 years. In 1969, the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was the catalyst for a number of landmark pieces of legislation and policy, including major changes to the SNAP, WIC and school meals programs.

It is time for the federal government to once again step up and create landmark improvements in student access to the healthy food they need to learn and thrive. 

This year’s conference was organized around the Biden-Harris Administration National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, a plan with the goal of “ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases — while reducing related health disparities.” The National Strategy is built on five pillars:

  1. Improving food access and affordability
  2. Integrating nutrition and health
  3. Empowering all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices
  4. Supporting physical activity for all
  5. Enhancing nutrition and food security research

Within each of these pillars there are elements that deal specifically with school meals, including many things that HSC has had some great successes with in Chicago, including expanding the district’s use of local foods, improving the overall nutrition of school meals, and decreasing sodium and sugar in school meals. 

All of these priorities are urgent. But perhaps most urgent to us at this moment is one particular section of the first pillar:

Advance a pathway to free healthy school meals for all. …A “healthy meals for all” approach would reorient the school meal programs from an ancillary service to an integral component of the school day…Elevating school meals is a key strategy to improve our nation’s health and would benefit all children—importantly, it would significantly strengthen the school meals program for those children who rely upon it the most. The Biden-Harris Administration will take a major first step by working with Congress to expand access to healthy, free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.

We couldn’t agree more that a universal approach to school meals would improve our nation’s health and benefit all children. And we’re not alone — the Community Preventive Services Task Force, a non-partisan advisory group set up by the Department of Health and Human Services, recently issued an evidence-based recommendation of Healthy School Meals for All, saying, “Participation in these programs is associated with reduced food insecurity, improved nutritional quality of students’ diets, and improved academic outcomes…Healthy School Meals for All is expected to advance health equity.” Our partners at FRAC add, “The last two years have proved that offering school meals to all children at no charge is a game changer for students, families, and schools.” 

Nevertheless, finding the funding and political will to implement this effective solution remains difficult. As our partners at CSPI point out, the “pathway [to free healthy school meals for all] already exists — Congress just needs to take it.” Congress had several opportunities last year to extend the waivers created during the pandemic that provide healthy school meals for all, but it did not.

Vision and leadership from the top are no small part of moving national policy and practice in a new direction, and as we have been saying since the early days of the pandemic, the country needs a new approach to issues of food insecurity, not a narrow, cumbersome focus on eligibility. We are hopeful that the new National Strategy will lead to a meaningful expansion of student access to the healthy school meals they need to be able to learn and thrive. 

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