This fall, thousands of schools across the country will celebrate National School Lunch Week, set for October 10–14, to highlight school lunch and its important role in supporting the school learning environment. In honor of National School Lunch Week, we’ll explore the history of the National School Lunch Program, reveal its connection to academic success, and explain how a new federal option—Community Eligibility—is revolutionizing the way school lunch and breakfast are served.
The National School Lunch Program plays a critical role in supporting students’ academic success—fueling their minds and bodies with the nutrients necessary to perform at their best. According to the most recent data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30.5 million children were served through the National School Lunch Program, with 22 million receiving a free or reducedprice lunch on a typical day.
The National School Lunch Program is rooted in the idea that our nation recognized the importance of meeting the nutritional needs of America’s children in order to ensure a strong national defense. It was launched in response to findings that prospective military recruits for the World War II draft were rejected due to physical deficiencies stemming from childhood malnutrition. In 1946, Congress enacted the National School Lunch Act, providing federal reimbursements for each meal served to children, with higher reimbursement rates provided for meals served to low-income students. Since its inception, the National School Lunch Program has been an important safety net that supports the physical and academic development of impoverished students.
Central Role in Academic Success
Academic success in the secondary school setting depends on students being able to build upon and master lessons learned in previous school years. Research shows that food-insecure students learn at a slower rate than their food-secure counterparts. For example, studies have shown that elementary school students from food-insecure homes have significantly lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade compared to those from food-secure homes. These initial delays result in a knowledge gap that continues to widen as the child progresses in his or her school career. The National School Lunch Program ensures that children receive the proper nutrition needed to be attentive pupils so that they are better positioned to succeed both in and outside the classroom.
Community Eligibility Provision
Throughout the years, the National School Lunch Program has seen overall participation among low-income children increase. An important driver of the recent growth is the widespread adoption of the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal option that became available nationwide in the 2014–15 school year, after being phased in in 10 states. This powerful provision allows high-poverty schools to offer both school lunch and school breakfast at no charge to all students while also eliminating the administrative burden of collecting and processing school meal applications. By making school meals available to all students, regardless of income, the stigma of participating in the school meals program is lifted, resulting in schools experiencing a significant boost in participation.
The Community Eligibility Provision also makes it easier for schools to implement Breakfast After the Bell programs, which further increase school breakfast participation. Historically, participation in the National School Lunch Program has far exceeded that of the School Breakfast Program. According to the Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC’s) Breakfast Scorecard, for every 100 low-income children participating in the National School Lunch Program, only 54 low-income students participated in the School Breakfast Program during the 2014–15 school year. This stark difference in participation is due to a number of barriers, including the inconvenient timing of traditional school breakfast (often served well in advance of the start of the school day) and the stigma associated with participating in the program. Schools have overcome these challenges by using alternative service models—such as breakfast in the classroom, “grab and go,” or second chance breakfast—to offer breakfast outside the cafeteria and timed closer to the first class period. Community Eligibility eliminates stigma by enabling all students to enjoy breakfast at no cost, and it streamlines breakfast service because food service no longer has to track meals by reimbursement category.
Maximizing Reach of School Lunch
The National School Lunch Program plays an important role in supporting the learning environment. As school leaders, principals are uniquely poised to work closely with schoolbuilding stakeholders to ensure that students have easy access to this critical program. Here are two ways that principals can engage the school community and improve the reach of the school lunch program:
- Explore Community Eligibility: Are you serving a high-poverty school? Use FRAC’s searchable database to determine if your school qualifies for Community Eligibility. Schools with an identified student percentage of at least 40 percent are eligible to adopt the provision. If you are eligible but not participating, connect with your food service director to understand why your school is not implementing the provision. You can access FRAC’s database by visiting www.frac.org.
- Celebrate National School Lunch Week: The School Nutrition Association has created a number of activities that schools can do to raise awareness about the National School Lunch Program. Access the toolkit by visiting www.schoolnutrition.org/nslw.
Visit www.frac.org for additional resources on the importance of school meals.
Mieka Sanderson is a policy analyst at the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C.