By: Shannan Young, RDN, SNS
Countries around the world are looking for solutions to complex issues such as hunger, supporting social equity and addressing climate change. As ways to increase sustainability dominate the conversation, finding equitable solutions to support and address the nutritional needs of a growing population are also gaining momentum. Food insecurity continues to be a challenge, but experts understand that providing access to food simply isn’t enough.
That is why global leaders are coming together to look for sustainable solutions that enable people to access the nutritious foods they need for good health and to achieve nutrition security, challenges that disproportionately impact children and adolescents in vulnerable communities worldwide. Led by the USDA, the United States is joining the global coalition “School Meals: Nutrition, Health and Education for Every Child” as one way to address these issues.
Nutrition security is defined as people consistently having physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life. In the United States, many children and families are unable to consistently access the nutritious foods and nutrition education they need to grow healthfully and thrive. According to Feeding America, 12.5% of Americans, including 1 in 6 children, may experience food insecurity in 2021. Globally, the situation is even more dire. According to the United Nations, the pandemic has dramatically worsened world hunger. Though the pandemic’s impact has yet to be fully mapped, they estimate about a tenth of the global population—up to 811 million people—were undernourished last year.
Studies show that food insecurity and poor health are closely linked; the prevalence of 10 chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, is significantly higher in adults who are food insecure. Many factors may impact a family’s ability to access food, and experts agree that environmental conditions—where people live, learn, work, play and gather—affect health outcomes, with nutrition being one of the important determinants of overall health and quality of life.
Ensuring all children, families and communities are nutritionally secure will require collaboration at all levels. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently addressed the importance of collaboration across all sectors to solve the interrelated issues of food insecurity, poor diet quality and health outcomes. With local, regional, state and national partners working together, along with strong federal food and nutrition assistance programs providing support, nutrition security can be achieved for all Americans.
School Meals Nourish Children
There are many pathways to achieving nutrition security, and school meals must be part of the solution. School breakfast and lunch programs provide nutrient-rich foods and nutrition security for many children, especially in underserved communities. For children facing food insecurity, these meals may be their best source of nutrient-dense foods and the only opportunity to consume foods from all food groups with a variety of essential nutrients for growth and development. School meals are accessible and affordable, and they contain nutritious foods like milk and dairy, fruit and vegetables, and whole grains that are frequently inaccessible to children and families in marginalized communities.
Although school cafeterias are sometimes seen as unhealthy, in fact most school meals offer an impressive variety of high-quality foods that include milk and dairy, fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein. In a recent 15-year study that compared school meals to other sources of food such as corner stores, grocery stores and restaurants, researchers found school meals to be the healthiest meals offered to children. Study results show that school meals also provide nutrition equity as children are able to consume more nutrient-rich foods at school, regardless of race, ethnicity or household income. This underscores the nutrient quality of school meals and the invaluable nutrition they bring to children.
This finding is not entirely a surprise, since meals provided through the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program are designed to meet specific nutrition and food group requirements set by the USDA. School meals are required to contain a balanced, diverse and appropriate selection of nutritious foods to help students meet daily dietary requirements.
Filling Nutrient Gaps
Research shows that most U.S. children continue to underconsume fruit, vegetables and dairy foods as recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Numerous studies have shown students who participate in school meal programs have higher diet quality compared to nonparticipants and that skipping breakfast results in lower overall diet quality because children do not make up the lost nutrition later in the day when dairy, fruit and vegetables, and whole grains are missed at breakfast.
However, students who participate in free or reduced-price school lunch programs are shown to have lower rates of food insecurity, obesity and poor health. Eating school meals is linked to better nutrition, academic achievement and health because school meals offer children choices from all of the food groups. Dairy is an important component of school meals, providing key nutrients that contribute to nutrition security, especially for children and families living in marginalized communities. Milk, cheese and yogurt provide essential nutrients—calcium, vitamin D and potassium—that support optimal growth, bone health and overall health but are currently underconsumed by children.
Advocating for whole, minimally processed foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein as the foundation for school meals can continue to improve diet quality for all children. Both school meals and nutrition education must be prioritized to improve access and knowledge to help children form healthy habits and increase consumption of nutrient-dense foods that fill nutrient gaps and support lifelong good health.
California is leading the way, being the first state in the nation to launch the Universal School Meals Program, providing free school meals to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade, increasing access to nutritious foods for all children to help them grow, learn and thrive.
Nutrition Assistance Programs
School meal programs are critical in supporting school-aged children, but another vital source of nutrition security for children and families is federal nutrition assistance programs that directly support the most vulnerable populations. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provide nutrient-rich foods combined with nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that support lifelong good health.
Research shows that nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life can have lasting impacts on health. Pregnancy through early childhood is a unique time frame for the foundation of optimal health, physical growth and neurodevelopment. WIC is a vital program that serves about half of all infants in the United States and provides women with nutrition education and young children with age-appropriate, nutrient-rich foods—milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein sources. The program helps mothers and young children adopt healthy eating patterns that provide key nutrients to set the stage for lifelong health benefits. Milk, cheese and yogurt are an important part of food assistance for women and children because they provide a unique package of key nutrients that contribute to physical growth and optimal health and well-being for both children and mothers. In fact, milk is recommended as a beverage of choice for children by leading health experts.
In a current policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized the important role of federal nutrition programs in providing nutrition early in life to improve children’s chances of leading healthy, productive lives. In addition to WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program provides nutritious meals and nutrition security to children in daycare and early education settings.
Together, these federal nutrition programs are part of the solution to achieving nutrition security for all children. They support the most vulnerable populations by providing access to wholesome, nutrient-rich foods like milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean protein sources, essential for helping all children and families reach their full potential for growth, health and learning.
Collaboration Is Essential
While school meals and federal nutrition programs are critical to supporting healthier children, families and communities, more action is needed. It will require multisector collaboration, advocacy and action to achieve nutrition security in the United States and globally, supporting children and families where they live, learn, work, play and gather.
As the United States joins global efforts, it is also critical that local collaborations are formed. That is why Dairy Council of California launched Well-Nourished, Brighter Futures, a statewide initiative of the Let’s Eat Healthy movement that brings together key health and community stakeholders to improve nutrition education, facilitate and provide access to nutritious foods and advocate for every child’s nutritional needs to ensure all children are supported for a brighter future.
The Well-Nourished, Brighter Futures initiative is another part of the solution to nutrition security, working with partners locally and regionally to find realistic and actionable solutions to improve children’s health. For more than 100 years, Dairy Council of California has elevated the health of children and families through the pursuit of lifelong healthy eating habits. Collaboration is vital to prioritizing children’s health and building healthier communities.
Shannan Young, RDN, SNS
Shannan Young, RDN, SNS
Shannan is the Program Director of Food Systems and Access. With over 20 years of experience as a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Supporting healthier lives is ensuring all children, families + communities have access to wholesome, nutritious foods.
As rates of food insecurity continue rise, school meals are more important than ever.