As children embark on a new school year, the need for appropriate healthcare, behavioral health services, and social care does not end at the schoolyard. In fact, schools represent one of the most convenient and accessible touchpoints for children and families in need.
A critical social barrier to quality education and health is adequate nutrition and access to food. School lunch programs may have gone in and out of favor over the years, but they are incredibly effective at increasing food security for school-aged children. With growing awareness of the importance of social care in overall health, it’s time to recognize school lunch programs as essential to a healthy curriculum.
Challenges with Food Assistance for School-Aged Children
While six states have taken action to make school meals free to all students regardless of income, the process of receiving free meals is much more complicated for the vast majority of low-income American families.
Families that do not already receive SNAP benefits must apply through their school to determine whether their household is eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. To be eligible, family income must fall well below the poverty line. This leaves a significant number of families who are not “poor” enough to qualify, but not “well-off” enough to feel food secure and provide their children with adequate food while at school.
For many families already facing other difficult societal changes—such as the rising costs of groceries and fuel—this gap represents another significant burden. The application and enrollment process is also time consuming and challenging. Typically, families need the support of a busy school staff member to help with the submission of their application.
Programs such as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can help high-poverty schools and districts offer school meals at no cost to enrolled students without family applications. But such support is not available to every school, district, or family in need.
Schools are also challenged by the same supply chain obstacles and rising cost issues that almost every organization faces today. When traditional food supplies are not available, schools must still provide meals that meet USDA meal requirements or face fines, even though substitutions are often more costly.
A New Call to Meet Health and Social Needs Through School Lunch Programs
Why are universal school lunch programs so important?
Access to well-balanced, nutritious meals has a direct impact on a child’s ability to focus in school. School lunch programs provide reliability and consistency in a child’s life, especially when they come from insecure, challenging, or disadvantaged circumstances. When school meals are available to all, the stigma associated with receiving food assistance is reduced.
Kids and their families have so much to worry about these days—food shouldn’t be one of them.
In recognition of this reality, the Biden Administration hosted the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in 2022.
This was the first time such a program has been held since 1969. The conference addressed challenges in the nation’s food system that are leading to food insecurity, chronic hunger, nutrition and health inequities, and the rise of diet-related chronic disease. Such challenges cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars every year in preventable healthcare spending.
The program focuses on five pillars with concrete steps to meet the associated barriers:
- Improving food access and affordability
- Integrating nutrition and health
- Empowering all consumers with access to healthy choices
- Supporting physical activity for all
- Enhancing nutrition and food security research
Building on these efforts, the Biden-Harris Administration launched the White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities, a nationwide call to action for organizations across the country to make commitments to ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030. Since its launch, a number of organizations have already stepped up to participate in the Challenge by announcing new commitments.
Technology Can Connect School Children and Families to Support
School lunch programs can play a central role in social care that ultimately reduces healthcare spending and improves population health. When students are healthier, supported, and food secure, they are also more likely to be attentive and more engaged in the classroom. Teachers, administrators, families, communities, and—most importantly—students all win.
But school lunch programs also highlight the opportunity that schools represent to make other health and social care services more accessible. These include needs around mental health, substance use disorders, housing insecurity, and transportation.
By integrating schools within broader community health and social care networks, social service providers and organizations can help children thrive at school and at home, while offering crucial support to families and school staff.
Learn more on how to increase your impact. Access our flyer to learn how joining a network of coordinated care can help your organization connect students and their families to the care they need.
About Unite Us
Unite Us is the nation’s leading software company bringing sectors together to improve the health and well-being of communities. We drive the collaboration to identify, deliver, and pay for services that impact whole-person health. Through Unite Us’ national network and software, community-based organizations, government agencies, and healthcare organizations are all connected to better collaborate to meet the needs of the individuals in their communities.