As children embark on a new school year, hopefully community leaders, parents, school administrators and teachers remember one of the unexpected lessons of the COVID pandemic. The need for appropriate healthcare, behavioral health services and social care does not end at the school yard. 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 overall food security. 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
Are school lunches still free? While funding for school lunch programs was extended through the 2022-2023 school year through the Keep Kids Fed Act, not all students are allowed access to school meals free of charge.
Families that do not already receive SNAP benefits must apply through their school to determine if 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, the return to work, and the end of other Federal support programs, 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. In addition to sustenance, 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 on September 28.
This is the first time such a program has been held since 1969. The goal is to address 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 health care spending.
The program will focus 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
Hopefully, the event inspires new energy, community partnerships and funding for addressing food insecurity in school children.
SDoH Tools 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. Download 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 a technology company that builds coordinated care networks of health and social service providers. With Unite Us, providers across sectors can send and receive secure electronic referrals, track every person’s total health journey and report on tangible outcomes across a full range of services in a centralized, cohesive and collaborative ecosystem. Unite Us’ dedicated team builds authentic, lasting partnerships with local organizations to ensure their networks have a solid foundation, launch successfully, and continue to grow and thrive. This HITRUST-certified social care infrastructure helps communities transform their ability to work together and measure impact at scale.