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School Meals Are Healthy and Vital to Nourishing Children

By: Shannan Young, RDN, SNS

  • Tuesday, April 27, 2021
  • 3 Minute Read   

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On April 20, 2021, the USDA issued approval for school meal programs across the country to continue serving free meals until June 30, 2022, through USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, which is typically only available during the summer months. This announcement is a win for children, providing them with the nutrition security they need to grow healthfully—and providing school nutrition programs with much-needed financial support to continue as food hubs in their communities. 

National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs feed millions of children each day. Designed and required to meet the nutritional needs of growing students, school meals consist of wholesome foods from all food groups—dairy, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein—and are an essential safety net for children. School meals are vital to ensuring children are able to access the nutrients they need to grow, learn and be healthy.

These federal nutrition assistance programs provide children with safe, healthy meals free of charge and are an essential source of nutrition for millions of families. Those living in food-insecure and underserved communities were already facing challenges in accessing healthful foods before the pandemic, and its continued impact exacerbates the situation. In fact, it is estimated that more than 50 million people in the United States live with food insecurity, including 17 million children, and that number is expected to rise. 

Research continues to find that eating school meals every day is associated with healthier dietary intakes among U.S. schoolchildren. For instance, a recently published study from Tufts University found that, in 2018, schools were the healthiest source of food consumed across a sample of children and adults in the United States. The study looked at patterns and trends in diet quality by food source—including schools, restaurants and grocery stores—and found that diet quality for foods served at schools improved significantly from a similar study conducted 14 years earlier. The key takeaways: School meals are healthy and continue to get healthier, and they are a vital source of nutrition for children and families.   

The food environment is continually shifting and evolving, with new focus being placed on the importance of meeting nutrient needs—not just providing adequate calories. This change is fortunate because food insecurity and poor nutrition are closely linked. The reality is, children and families living with food insecurity need support in accessing nutritious foods to sustain and enable them to grow healthfully. Because school meals meet federal nutrition standards and incorporate dairy foods, vegetables, fruits and whole grains into meal plans, they are a free source of nutrition for children and a reliable source of support for families. 

Milk, in particular, is a required and vital part of school meals because it is nutritionally rich, easy to consume and highly palatable, helping children meet their daily nutrient needs. Significant research has been conducted around milk and dairy foods, concluding that milk and dairy foods offer a unique package of nutrients that work together to provide multiple benefits, including optimal growth and development in children and reduced risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Access to milk and dairy foods as part of a healthy eating pattern and as part of school meals is important, especially in underserved communities and during early childhood, since nutrition and diet quality can positively impact lifelong health.

That is why Dairy Council of California, a nutrition education organization under the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is proud to elevate the health of students, families and communities. We support the entire school community, dedicating resources to lead collaborative efforts like the California Local School Wellness Policy Collaborative and Smarter Lunchrooms Movement of California; providing free science-based educational resources, technical advising and trainings to educators, school foodservice and health professionals; and connecting California communities with food access resources and partners to help ensure all children and families are able to access the healthful foods they need to live healthfully.  

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. We believe that collaboration is vital to prioritizing children’s health and building healthier communities, which is why we launched Let’s Eat Healthy, a movement that aims to empower stakeholders to champion community health through nutrition. Advocates for healthier children, families and communities through nutrition education can join the movement to improve community health at HealthyEating.org/Join.

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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.

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