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A Case for Universal School Feeding

10/10/2022

From October 10th through 14th we recognize National School Lunch Week.The U.S. has a tradition of providing free meals for children from lower-income homes.  It is generally accepted that adequate nutrition is essential for both physical and brain development, especially in preschoolers and those attending kindergarten.  There is a wealth of literature confirming that adequate nutrition is correlated with learning scores and subsequent scholastic achievement.  Poor children benefit from supplementary nutrition but ironically, their wealthier counterparts also derive advantages from school feeding.  Meals provided by schools conform to accepted dietary requirements and accordingly, may be healthier than home-prepared brown bag lunches or snacks from vending machines.

 

Universal school feeding removes the stigma from children who consume meals supplied on a means-test basis.  Qualifying children for school meals based on family resources often results in the most needy being deprived of breakfasts and lunches. Parents, a busy single parent or guardian may fail to provide the documentation required to establish eligibility or may refuse to do so from a sense of shame.

 

In underdeveloped nations, school feeding increases attendance with obvious societal benefits. Serving breakfasts especially improves concentration and learning ability among children who are malnourished, as demonstrated in numerous studies in Africa and Asia.

 

It is estimated that providing universal free school meals in the U.S. would add approximately $10 billion to the cost of educating K through 12 students, representing an incremental 1.5 percent over all current expenditure on schools.  In addition to improving educational accomplishment, children would benefit physically from an acceptable diet, especially in rich nations where obesity is an emerging problem.

 

The September 3rd edition of The Economist reviewed alternative World school feeding systems.  The U.K. provides free school meals for all children through the third grade.  China provides universal meals for all children only in designated low-income communities.  The U.S. has a patchwork of programs generally providing subsidized food for low-income students.  Brazil has a comprehensive program that benefits all children from preschool onwards as do Scandinavian nations. India maintains the largest program subject to control by individual states. The World Food Program estimates that up to 400 million children receive some form of supplementary feeding at school.

 

With the advent of COVID in 2020, requirements for eligibility were lifted with emergency funds supplied by the federal government. Financial support is now at an end and this raises the question as to whether universal school feeding should continue as it provides benefits for children and society over the long term. 

 

The American Egg Board- Egg Nutrition Center has an important role to play in advocating for improved and extended school feeding.  Eggs should be incorporated in menus prepared for school meals based on balanced protein and essential nutrients at a relatively low cost, compared to other protein sources.  Since California and Maine have elected to extend universal school feeding, opportunities will be created to introduce eggs into food offered by cafeterias.  Coupled with the proposed designation of eggs as a “healthy food”, a case can be made for greater use of eggs in a variety of dishes, emphasizing their versatility.  Promoting eggs for school feeding will be a win-win for the industry, administrators of school budgets and above all, the children who will benefit from improved nutrition and hopefully enhanced scholastic achievement.