How The Lunch Ladies Will Save America’s Children

The healthy brain function of students depends in large part on whether they have steady access to a healthy, nutritious diet.² At home, parents and caretakers can ensure that their kids consume the right foods through meal preparation and by promoting eating practices that best suit their kids’ busy lives outside of school. Food insecurity, however, sometimes affects student households of low-income status making it difficult for families to meet their kids’ dietary needs. Defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food to lead an active life due to economic hardship, food insecurity is experienced by 9 million children in the United States.³ For school-aged children who are food insecure, the daily challenge of hunger creates disadvantages that are exacerbated by the pressure to succeed in their academics. With this in mind, many schools are involved in federal programs to provide healthy meals to students, sometimes at free or reduced prices, depending on their eligibility.¹ Schools understand that food is a necessary fuel to keep kids learning happily and productively; as a result, cafeterias have the significant task of feeding student populations when perhaps they do not have similar opportunities to be well-fed in their homes.

School nutrition is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which sets important standards for the meals served to children in the lunchroom. The USDA recommended guidelines indicate that a balanced meal must include fruits, dairy, grains, protein, and vegetables.⁴ School meals are designed around these main components based on research which shows these food groups support healthy eating patterns that play a significant role in the growth and development of children and adolescents.⁴ Having high, research-based standards for food quality protects students and their educational outcomes. There are studies, such as those conducted by the World Bank Group in their published work Early childhood nutrition and academic achievement: a longitudinal analysis,¹² linking diet and academic performance which state that eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function (especially memory), reduced absenteeism, and improved mood.⁴ Participants in breakfast programs also achieve better test scores than nonparticipants.¹

The School Breakfast Program (SBP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are two of the top programs dedicated to coordinating menus and serving students meals in preschool and grades K-12.⁶ NSLP operates in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private learning institutions and, for the 2019 fiscal year, the program provided 4.9 billion school lunches.¹⁰

Other programs available at a more limited number of schools target specific dietary goals outside of the average student breakfast and lunch courses. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides an additional free fruit or vegetable snack to students during the school day in hopes of identifying best practices for increasing consumption of these food groups among students.⁷ Beyond school hours, one after-school care option that falls under the National School Lunch Program is the Meal Supplements (Snacks) Program. This gives kids access to after-school snacks for those who are involved in auxiliary academic studies, or other enrichment activities, outside of their regularly scheduled school day. As determined by the USDA, the snack must contain full servings of any two of the following: fluid milk; meat or meat alternate; fruit, vegetable, or 100% juice; and a grain or bread product; all this with the exception that juice is not served in combination with milk alone.⁸

Some U.S. schools have come up with other creative solutions for their low-income students who have food insecurity for the time gaps where the federally funded programs are lacking in strategy. Because students have at least two meals every weekday to look forward to in school, their parents do not have the added stress of packing daily school lunches. However, because the students’ food options at home can vary considerably, there is still much room left for exploration regarding what schools can do for kids’ diets even after school or during the weekends. The Backpack Program in Indiana for example both reduces food waste and combats food insecurity by sending low-income students home every Friday with a backpack containing 8 individually wrapped frozen meals.⁹ The meals are composed of previously prepared, although never served, food items that would otherwise have gone to waste if the school administrators had not developed this innovative plan to re-purpose the good quality, surplus products for consumption by their lowest income students. The ingenious system is a wonderful case study that can be replicated elsewhere in the country as it helps ensure that school-aged children have enough to eat even on the weekends.

For the year 2022-23, another remarkable solution for student nutrition is originating for the first time statewide in California called the Universal Meals Program. This program will effectively guarantee all students–regardless of their eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals–the receipt of two meals entirely free of charge (breakfast and lunch) upon the student’s request during each school day.⁵ The transition to permanent free meals comes as a response albeit to the pandemic and its toll on the economy, health, and academic systems alike, but it is a historic change nonetheless that advances us into a new era of permanent, sustainable ways to provide free school meals to all pre-K through 12th-grade students.¹¹ 

By: Daisy Ocampo


  1. School Meals | Healthy Schools | CDC

  2. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food – Harvard Health

  3. What is Food Insecurity? | Feeding America

  4. Childhood Nutrition Facts | Healthy Schools | CDC

  5. California Universal Meals – School Nutrition (CA Dept of Education)

  6. NSLP and SBP Meal Patterns – Healthy Eating & Nutrition Education (CA Dept of Education)

  7. California Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program – School Nutrition (CA Dept of Education)

  8. Meal Supplements (Snacks) Under the NSLP – School Nutrition (CA Dept of Education)

  9. This School Gives Low-Income Students Food For Weekends | Life & Relationships |

  10. USDA ERS – National School Lunch Program

  11. School Meals for All | California Food for California Kids

  12. Early childhood nutrition and academic achievement: a longitudinal analysis – ScienceDirect

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