Back in 2019, I participated in a Civil Eats school food roundtable with three other panelists. We each had different perspectives on the topic, but when asked about our dreams for improving school food, all four of us mentioned one thing: universal school meals.
If school meals were provided to all students free of charge—just like bus service, textbooks, and gym equipment—we’d solve a host of problems. “Lunch shaming” would be a thing of the past, as would any other forms of socioeconomic stigmatization in the cafeteria. School nutrition professionals, freed from burdensome income-verifying paperwork, could invest more of their resources in the meal itself. Kids would spend less time in line and have more time to eat. And if the experience of districts serving free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision is any guide, we might also see improved grades and school attendance.
Universal meals seemed well out of reach back in 2019, but I still wondered why the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school nutrition professionals, hadn’t actively lobbied for them. So during our roundtable I said to Gay Anderson, then-president of the SNA, “I think we will never get there unless the School Nutrition Association advocates for it, until it becomes part of the SNA’s legislative agenda, because your organization has tremendous clout on Capitol Hill, and speaks for the lunch programs around the country. I don’t know how we could do it without that kind of really concerted effort, and I think your organization could help provide that leadership. I’d be curious to hear what you have to say.”
To my surprise, Anderson replied, “I fully believe that we do need to be speaking out on that. We always have it in papers and in public comments we make. But in the past, we’ve maybe not been as vocal as you may think we should, only because we keep saying that the government doesn’t have money. But maybe we do need to take that on. We’ve got 58,000 voices that could speak very loud and clear, but we also need support from other organizations to do it.”
Well, readers, that moment has now arrived. Last week, the SNA released its 2021 legislative agenda and its first listed priority is lobbying Congress to “[p]ermanently expand the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to offer all students meals at no charge as an integral part of the educational experience.”
This development may be seen as one silver lining of the pandemic. The sudden closure of schools completely upended school nutrition programs, leading the USDA to issue a waiver allowing districts to serve universal meals through the end of this school year. At the same time, covid dramatically heightened the public’s awareness of the critical importance of school meals for millions of American kids. As a result, many observers and advocates are now asking, “What If Free School Meals Became the Norm After the Pandemic Ends?”, and positing that “Covid-19 make[s] a stronger argument” for the idea, and suggesting that we must “double-down on the USDA’s temporary commitment . . . as an investment in [children’s] healthy, equitable, and resilient future.”
President Biden’s election and Democratic control of both houses of Congress obviously makes the timing of this request even more favorable. Indeed, 64 leading national organizations and associations have already written to Biden and Vice President Harris, urging them to “take every administrative step possible” to establish universal meals.
That outpouring of support, from organizations as diverse as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Conference of Mayors, will certainly bolster the SNA’s pitch to lawmakers this coming March. But I hope one more constituency is effectively organized to lend its voice to the cause: ordinary moms and dads, whose children would be the direct beneficiaries of this long overdue change.
Now for the rest of this week’s kid/food round-up. . . .
Top Kid/Food News 🧒🏽 📰
President Biden announced his proposed $1.9 billion covid rescue package, which includes several anti-hunger measures that will benefit families and children: extending a 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits though at least the end of September; investing $3 billion in WIC, which provides nutrition assistance for women, infants and children; an infusion of administrative support for state anti-hunger and nutrition programs; and providing $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance for families in the U.S. Territories.
A new report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity documents how the pandemic has unraveled the nation’s fragile early childcare safety net, a source of regular snacks and meals for participating children.
Four experts talk about growing childhood hunger, and how to alleviate it, at The Conversation.
Consistent with an op-ed shared here last week, The Counter offers a deep dive into the rise of childhood obesity during the pandemic. One cited reason: under emergency waivers, the nutritional standards of school meals has significantly declined.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests various public policies to reduce kids’ and teens’ sugary drink consumption—and explains why such policies are critically needed.
A new study finds that climate change’s higher temperatures are an equal or greater contributor to child malnutrition and children’s poor diet quality than poverty, inadequate sanitation, and poor education.
On Tuesday, January 26 at 11am ET, the Partnership for a Healthier America (created in 2010 in coordination with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative) will announce an exciting new early child feeding campaign. (Full disclosure: for the last several months, I’ve been part of the team working on this effort!) I hope you’ll join us by RSVP’ing here.
Cafeteria Corner: School Food News 🍎 🏫
Another item of note in SNA’s 2021 position paper: a continued push to “preserve flexibilities”—that is, to keep in place the Trump administration’s rollbacks of school nutrition standards relating to sodium, milk fat, and whole grains. Notably, the SNA is no longer justifying these rollbacks by claiming (as it had in several past position papers) that kids were wasting food meeting the more rigorous Obama-era standards, or just opting out of school meals altogether to avoid healthier meals. This change likely reflects the fact that a 2019 USDA study soundly refuted both of those claims.
The Rudd Center finds that students’ BMI scores are significantly lower in states with stronger policies governing the sale of unhealthy a la carte foods on school campuses.
School-run weekend feeding programs may boost children’s academic performance.
To prop up luxury food producers during the pandemic, the Japanese government has been redirecting various delicacies—like wagyu beef—to school cafeterias.
For two decades, a janitor at a small private school has been regularly cooking breakfast for underprivileged students.
For Little Eaters—and Those Who Feed Them 👶 🥣
Is caffeine safe for kids? Dietitian Sally Kuzemchak (Real Mom Nutrition) has some answers.
Why bribing kids to try new foods can backfire.
KID FOOD (vs. kid/food) News! 📘 ✍🏻
I hope you’ll indulge me if I occasionally share here any recent news about my book, Kid Food. This week, I was honored to be interviewed about it by Early Learning Nation—you can read our Q & A here.
The Grown-Ups’ Table 🍸🍴
Some interesting food links that caught my eye:
Writer Lisa Held today launches Peeled, a new food policy newsletter.
Some fascinating/troubling history behind the invention of the bagel.
Were ketchup slices a thing we needed?
Ben & Jerry’s introduces ice cream for the canine set.
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Until Next Time!
OK, that’s it for this week! If you enjoyed this newsletter, please take a sec to help other interested readers find it:
And don’t forget: If you work in the kid/food world and have something big going on—an article or op-ed you've just written, an innovation in your school food program, a new advocacy campaign or policy initiative, recently published research, or any other news or tidbits—shoot me an email!