How School Lunch Programs Support Children’s Health, Even From A Distance

When it comes to children’s health and access to nutritional food, schools and public health experts have become invested in the implementation of programs that provide healthy school lunches, whether students are on campus or taking classes remotely.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five children ages 2 to 19 were obese in 2016. Additionally, more than 11 million children in the United States live in food insecure homes, meaning they lacked reliable access to enough food for an active, healthy life, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). School closures make getting enough nutritious food even more difficult for families, especially those who live in rural areas, far from a meal distribution site.

To address this public health issue, schools, parents, students, and community members can work together to implement effective school lunch programs when students are on campus and safe meal delivery programs when classes are held remotely.

Understanding Childhood Nutrition Issues

Instilling healthy habits in children at a young age has the potential to help stave off chronic health conditions later in life. However, some young people are already experiencing the onset of health issues, such as childhood obesity.

Nutrition plays an important part in one’s health, including the prevention of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Prevalence of Obesity Among Youths ages 2 to 19, 2015-2016.

According to a study from the CDC, over 18 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 were obese in 2016. The prevalence of obesity is higher among non-Hispanic black youths (22 percent) and Hispanic youths (25.8 percent).

While an individual’s body mass index (BMI)—a method for relating weight to height commonly used to define overweight and obesity—is not the sole signifier of health, research has shown that young people are experiencing other health risks commonly associated with one’s diet and exercise habits.

20.4%

Prevalence of obesity in males aged 6-11 years old

Children living in low-income households are especially susceptible to poorer health. According to a study on the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents, obesity prevalence was 18.9 percent among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years in the lowest income group, and 10.9 percent among those in the highest income group. Education status also played a role; the prevalence of obesity decreased based on the higher level of education of the household head among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years.

One way this public health issue is being addressed is through the implementation of school lunch programs in K-12 schools. These programs follow federal guidelines for nutrition requirements with the goal of improving the quality of meals for students, while also providing free and reduced meals to low-income students.

Why Healthy School Lunches Are Working

Many schools provide students with access to meals through federal school meal programs including the National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA and state agencies, which reimburse schools for providing healthy meals to students. The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program serves free, healthy meals and snacks to students when school is out, a model that the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, the USDA, and other partners are adapting to safely deliver meals to children affected by school closures in rural areas.

While this is beneficial to all students who buy meals at school, these programs are especially important for children living in low-income households, as some students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.

Research has shown that programs focused on providing healthy school lunches often improve students’ food choices.

According to the CDC’s resource for healthy schools, students who participate in school meal programs consume more milk, fruits, and vegetables during meal times and have better intake of certain nutrients, such as calcium and fiber, than nonparticipants. A study on food choices of middle school students found that access to healthy school lunches led to healthier decisions outside of school, specifically the consumption of soda.

Additionally, a study on the effects of The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (PDF, 197 KB), which updated the guidelines for federal school lunch programs, showed that the act positively affected students’ nutritional intake:

  • Comparing 2012 to 2014, the percentage of students choosing fruit significantly increased from 54 percent to 66 percent and fruit consumption remained high at 74 percent.
  • Student selection of fruit increased by 9 percent for each additional type of fruit offered with the meal.
  • Entree consumption increased significantly from 71 percent to 84 percent, in turn decreasing the amount of food waste.

Through free and reduced meal offerings when schools are open and meal delivery options when schools are closed, school lunch programs also help students whose households do not have enough food for their family to live healthily. According to information from the Food Research and Action Center on the benefits of school lunch, among a sample of low-income children entering kindergarten, receiving a free or reduced-price school lunch reduces the probability of household food insecurity at school entry, whereas paying full price for school lunch is associated with a higher probability of household food insecurity.

How to Support School Lunch Programs

While school lunch programs have the potential to contribute to the health of students, following through on such initiatives requires additional consideration to make sure plans will be successful. For example, if the healthy lunch options provided are unappealing to children, they may not consume the full meal, contributing to food waste and potentially affecting their nutritional intake. Based on guidance from health and government organizations, paired with a little innovation, schools are finding ways to improve their school lunch programs.

Tips for Schools: Making School Lunch Programs Effective

Provide meals that are both nutritious and appealing to minimize food waste.

Healthy school lunches will not benefit students’ health if they do not find their options appetizing. To address this, some schools involve students and parents in the decision-making process for choosing menu items by hosting taste tests and brainstorms when students are on campus.

Give students adequate time to eat meals between on-campus and virtual classes.

According to the CDC’s recommendations for school meal times, students should receive 20 minutes of seated time for lunch. Doing so can result in increased consumption of food and key nutrients; increased selection of a fruit; increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, the main entrée, and milk; and decreased food waste.

Create opportunities for nutrition education.

This can be done in many ways. When students are on campus, some urban schools are utilizing hydroponic vegetable gardens and involving students in the process, allowing them to learn while having access to fresh ingredients year-round for their school lunch programs. Extra produce is sold to the community, allowing them to benefit as well.

Resources for Parents: Learn More About School Lunch Programs

COVID-19 Resources: School Closures and Food Access — Action for Healthy Kids

For families and school staff, this nonprofit offers guidance on continuing to access nutritious foods and maintaining activity for kids when school is out of session.

Find Meals for Kids When Schools are Closed — The USDA Food and Nutrition Service

The USDA provides an online tool for finding well-balanced meals for children when they are out of school. By entering their address, families can use the tool to find contact information, hours of operation, and directions to nearby sites.

Healthy School Meals — National Parent Teacher Association

Parents involved in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) for their child’s school may be interested in this website that provides information on how PTAs can get involved in advocating for improvements to school lunches.

How to Support Kids’ Nutrition in Your Child’s School — Pew Research Center

Parents can also get involved in the conversation on an individual level. This article from the Pew Research Center highlights tips for adults on how they can learn more about their child’s school lunch program and take action.

Learn About Your School Meal Program — School Nutrition Association

This article from the School Nutrition Association serves as an additional resource for parents who want to learn more about the meals provided for their children and how they can voice their opinion to the school administration.

National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs — Benefits.gov

Federally funded school lunch and breakfast programs offer free and reduced options for children from low-income households. This resource provided by the U.S. government explains who qualifies for free and reduced meals through school lunch programs and explains the process for applying.

National School Lunch Program — Food Research and Action Center

The Food Research and Action Center provides facts on the National School Lunch Program, including the benefits of healthy school lunches and information on who is eligible for financial assistance, making it a helpful resource for individuals who want to be more informed.

National School Lunch Program Information for Households — U.S. Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides information on federal school meal policies for parents and guardians, as well as school administrators and community members.

Parents for Healthy Schools — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This set of resources and tools created by the CDC helps schools encourage parent involvement in students’ health. While the resources are aimed primarily at decision-makers, they’re also helpful for parents interested in getting involved with their school’s health and wellness efforts.

Resources to Support Remote Education (PDF, 834.79 KB) — FoodCorps

Time at home can be an opportunity for children to learn hands-on about cooking and nutrition. FoodCorps offers gardening activities and lessons on making simple, healthy recipes such as rainbow smoothies and homemade flatbread crackers.

Citation for this content: The MPH online program from Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences