(StatePoint) As of early 2020, every child in the United States is eligible for school meals at no cost, regardless of family income level—no forms, no questions. This policy, along with other interventions, including an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children Programme, has prevented millions of children and families from going hungry during the pandemic. But school meal subsidies ended in September, putting healthy school meals out of reach for children who depend on them for nearly half their daily calories and a steady source of good nutrition.
Amid rising food prices, rising nutrition and food insecurity, and families struggling to access nutritious foods in their communities, advocates at the American Heart Association say Congress’ failure to extend healthy school meals is already having dire consequences.
For more than two years, the country has experienced relatively stagnant food insecurity rates. Pandemic-era assistance has helped ensure that already high rates are not exacerbated by families struggling to feed their children. However, with these policies ending and food costs rising, early data from 2022 indicates that food insecurity is rising rapidly. Food insecurity disproportionately affects households with children (14.8%), Hispanic households (17%), black households (21%) and households living at or below the federal poverty line (35%). This crisis also comes at a time when families across America are facing health care delays, barriers to affordable housing, and general financial stress from rising consumer prices.
According to Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, “Giving students healthy school meals free of charge is a recipe for success that reduces food insecurity, improves children’s diets and academic performance, generates significant revenue for schools, and reduces stigma.” “Federal government action is long overdue. It is essential for families and schools to feed children the healthy meals they need to succeed.”
Kids who eat well do better in school. However, access to food is only part of the problem. The American Heart Association notes that with more than 15 million school breakfasts and 30 million school lunches served each day, what children put on their plates has a significant impact on their overall health and well-being.
“Federal programs, including SNAP and the Summer Food Service Program, have been integral to tackling hunger, but many policies focus on improving access to adequate amounts of food,” Brown says. “While this goal is very important, particularly in alleviating the effects of poverty, we must update these policies and programs to also focus on food quality, so that people can have enough nutritious food.”
There are opportunities for the federal government to change course and ensure that every child across the country has access to free, nutritious foods at school. The White House recently released a National Strategy to End Nutrition and Food Insecurity and Mitigate the Effects of Diet-Related Chronic Diseases in the United States by 2030, with a recommendation for healthy school meals for all and strong nutrition standards. In addition, a House key committee passed a Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill that would protect and enhance nutrition standards for school meals and help millions of children obtain healthy school meals, among other updates to child nutrition programs. Advocates at the American Heart Association say the Senate now needs to do its part to give children the best chance of success. To find out more, visit https://act.yourethecure.org/tqmwpbx.
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