Guest blog by Emily Belarmino
Federal funding that has provided free breakfast and lunch at school for all students during the pandemic is likely ending this summer. We can ensure that, while at school, every child is fed and ready to learn by passing S.100 in Vermont which would allow every student to access the nutrition they need during the school day.
There is growing evidence that school meals benefit children’s health and wellbeing (Hecht et al. 2020). Studies consistently find universal free meals to improve school meal participation rates. There is also promising evidence for the benefit of school meals on food security, which aligns with priorities outlined in the Vermont Agriculture and Food System Strategic Plan 2021-2030. The benefits appear to be greatest for children and adolescents who are food insecure and those that are ‘near eligible’ using existing measures of eligibility based on household income (Cohen et al. 2021).
Here in Vermont, our research has shown elevated levels of food insecurity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with households with children among those with the greatest risk (McCarthy et al. 2022; Niles et al. 2020). Notably, even as we transition from pandemic to endemic, rates of food insecurity remain above pre-pandemic levels (McCarthy et al. 2022). While troubling, this aligns with what we have seen in past economic downturns. For example, it took over ten years after the Great Recession for food insecurity rates to return to levels documented before 2008 (Coleman-Jensen et al. 2021).
Universal meals also provide indirect benefits. For instance, providing free school meals for all students reduces the administrative burden on cafeteria staff. In one government study, school meal officials reported that this provided staff with additional time to focus on improving meal quality, nutrition education, and professional development, and teachers with additional time to devote to instruction (Robinson, 1994).
There is growing evidence that universal school meals are a win-win that supports students’ health and sets them up to be in the best position to learn. Please join me and the American Heart Association in urging your senators to support S.100. Click here to send a message now.