By: Tracy Mendez, RDN
An estimated 13 million children—or 1 in 6—experience food insecurity in the United States. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, that number is projected to be even higher at 17 million, including more than 2.2 million right here in California. Food insecurity, which refers to having limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life, is a problem everywhere, including the United States. The sad reality is, children are more likely than any other group in the nation to face food insecurity. Thankfully, schools can support children by providing the powerful combination of accessible food and nutrition education.
School Meal Programs Nourish Students
Schools are the heart of communities, and they have become a reliable source of free, healthy food for many children and families, supporting normal growth and development while giving kids the nutrients they need to succeed in and out of the classroom. Thanks to the hard work of many people and organizations at all levels—especially educators, foodservice and administrative staff at schools—students have been supported, educated and nourished during these challenging times, which can be life-changing for many families.
Schools and school cafeterias play a critical role in helping to nourish students, especially those living in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities or food-insecure homes. Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program has been providing free or reduced-price meals to children in need for the past 75 years. It is now the second largest food assistance program in the country with more than 4.9 billion meals served each year. The School Breakfast Program is equally as important, providing 14 million children with a well-balanced meal to start the school day.
Research shows participation in free or reduced-price school lunch programs help decreased rates of food insecurity, obesity and poor health. Studies confirm that students who participate in school meal programs are more likely to eat fruit, vegetables and milk during meals, providing a greater intake of important nutrients typically underconsumed in the American diet such as calcium and fiber. Additionally, student participation in the School Breakfast Program is associated with better academic grades, reduced absenteeism and improved cognitive performance/memory.
Experts agree that diet quality matters, and research continues to show that eating school meals every day is associated with healthier dietary intakes among U.S. schoolchildren. In a recently published study from Tufts University, researchers 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.
School foodservice staff play a critically important role in the school community, preparing and serving nutritious and wholesome foods like milk and dairy, fruit and vegetables, and whole grains to students—foods they may not be able to access elsewhere—helping to set them up for success both in and out of the classroom.
Nutrition Education Equips Students With Tools for Lifelong Healthy Eating
Ensuring children have access to healthy food is just one piece of the puzzle. They also need to be taught about nutrition and how food fuels their bodies, enabling them to make the connection between the food they eat and health. By teaching nutrition education, students are given the knowledge and tools they need to establish lifelong healthy eating habits.
Kids tend to show a natural interest in nutrition because it is applicable to everyday life, and instilling nutrition knowledge empowers them to make smart food choices throughout their life. Including nutrition education as part of classroom instruction teaches students essential life skills that extend beyond simple nutrition, inspiring them to choose healthier food options because they understand how the foods support their health. It also establishes a value for nutrition as a way to improve their health and academic performance. By introducing nutrition at school and at an earlier age, children establish a foundation for nutrition alongside other subjects, learning about different food groups and nutrition topics while also reinforcing other skills such as social and emotional intelligence and decision-making.
Using credible nutrition resources like Let’s Eat Healthy Nutrition Curriculum—provided by Dairy Council of California as a free, science-based resource to California educators—students are given the tools needed to make healthier eating decisions, which can be applied in the school cafeteria, at home and in social settings.
Combining Food Security With Nutrition Education Sets Students Up to Succeed
Teachers and school foodservice employees are instrumental in helping to provide food to students through school meal programs and the school cafeteria, and the impact can be even greater when coupled with nutrition education.
For instance, Scott Brown, a teacher in Fresno Unified School District, found a creative way to support his students by bridging nutrition education and food access. Scott has taught nutrition to his students as part of his regular curriculum for over 12 years in a socioeconomically disadvantaged school district that qualifies to provide free school meals to all students regardless of income.
When the pandemic hit and schools went virtual, Scott worried about his students’ access to food at home. He creatively and confidentially surveyed his students to determine whether they were living with food insecurity. By framing it through an educational exercise, he asked students to respond to a variety of multiple choice questions, enabling him to assess if they were able to access foods from all five food groups at home, or if they would be easily able to get the foods they didn’t already have. Scott identified 13 families that were living with food insecurity and could use support in accessing healthful foods. To support these students and families, he partnered with his school and a local church to create a food assistance program to deliver free groceries to all 13 of the families in need.
This is a powerful example of a teacher using nutrition education to increase food access for his students. When combined with access to healthy food, nutrition education in schools creates a healthy eating foundation and sets children up for lifelong success—whether through new pathways like those created by Scott or through the many food resources provided to students daily through the collaborative efforts of the entire school community and its partners.
Collaboration Is the Key to Building Healthy Communities
Improving the health of children and communities takes collaboration to achieve success. Health professionals, educators and advocates must work together to teach children about nutrition and create change in their communities.
Through shared values, the Let’s Eat Healthy movement elevates the health of children and families through the pursuit of lifelong healthy eating habits. Small steps can make a big difference in the lives of children and their communities—from role-modeling healthy eating and physical activity habits to joining the local school wellness committee.
Join the movement and learn how you can take small steps that can inspire lifelong healthy eating habits and improve the health of your community today.
Tracy Mendez, RDN
Tracy Mendez, RDN
Tracy Mendez, Nutrition Education Director, is a practicing registered dietitian nutritionist with expertise in advancing nutrition education.
PE teacher Scott Brown highlights his experience in teaching nutrition education with Let’s Eat Healthy "Exercise Your Options" curriculum.
Research continues to find that eating school meals every day is associated with healthier dietary intakes among U.S. schoolchildren.