Kathy Grano has served her New Jersey community of Middletown Township Schools as a school nurse for the past 14 years. As much as Grano appreciates the opportunity to teach students at New Monmouth Primary School how to take care of their health through good hygiene, nutrition and physical activity, she also has a bigger picture in mind.
She wants good nutrition and exercise to be similarly available to all of the nearly 50 million students enrolled in American public schools.
“There are a lot of barriers that make it difficult for schools to do everything they can to support student health,” says Grano. “Often this is due to lack of time in the school day due to other educational requirements. Some communities do not have safe spaces where children can play, or easy access to nutritious food that families can afford.” Students of color are disproportionately affected by both issues.
Grano was thrilled to be able to share her thoughts on how schools can support student health at the White House Conference on Nutrition, Hunger and Health held in Washington, DC on September 28.
She participated in a panel entitled “The Power of Play” on promoting movement and exercise for children. “We know that physical activity is an important part of the healthy living equation,” says Grano. “It has a positive effect on cognitive development, behaviour, socialization and stress relief.”
As Grano said during the panel discussion, schools can do more to make physical activity part of the daily routine, including short periods of activity such as a morning walk or a lap in recess; weekly before and after school walking clubs; Use physical activity breaks as a motivator for class achievement.
Of course, all this activity should be motivated by good nutrition. That’s why the Biden administration’s support for a path to universal school meals is such an inspiration to educators like Grano.
“The community backpacking program has a motto: ‘Because you can’t be cool when you’re hungry,’” says Grano, referring to BackPack Crew, where she works as a regular volunteer! “If we want all students to have the opportunity to shine, we must do everything we can to support good nutrition.”
Schools are the key to fighting hunger
One in six children in America lacks continuous access to adequate nutrition.
Research supports that when students participate in school meal programs, their understanding and attendance improve. The meals children receive in school prepare them for learning and shape their food choices and health outcomes as adults.
Providing universal access to school meals—making it free for all students and eliminating cumbersome enrollment procedures or partial payments for some families—is the best way to ensure that all students are free from the hunger and stigma that arise from student meal debt or systems that call attention to students’ finances at home.
“We’ve seen the difference it makes for so many families when all the students can eat for free at school,” says Kristen Driscoll, a member of the NEA Government Relations team who specializes in federal solutions to child hunger.
We know that serving global school meals is transformative – we’ve seen the difference it has made over the past two years. The ongoing pandemic has shown that schools and school food service professionals can provide meals to students in all communities, under difficult circumstances. The NEA and the Biden administration agree that we must continue to build on this and take steps to improve access as we work toward the ultimate goal of universal free meals.
Steps Congress Can Take Now
1) Congress recently passed legislation providing some flexibility and resources for schools this school year, but the NEA knows we can do a better job of ensuring students don’t go hungry in school. “We are asking Congress to finish the job by giving the USDA[USDA]the authority to extend exemptions for free school meals for the current school year,” Driscoll says.
2) Move forward with the right priorities in child nutrition re-licensing, particularly expanding community eligibility provision, which will provide more free meals to more students in high-need schools. Learn more about NEA Redelegation priorities.
The action items below include three ways you can show your support for universal access to free and healthy school meals for students. Email your members of Congress today!
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