It's that time of year again. Summer vacation is over, and whether they like it or not, kids all over the U.S. are going back to school. "Back to school" is synonymous with getting back into a routine for children and families. For many children, the back-to-school routine includes knowing that they will get two nutritious meals each day, something many have gone without during the summer.
For the first time in 50 years, a majority of public school children are from low-income families. Despite evidence that children learn better, have fewer disciplinary problems and lead healthier lives when they are given nutritious meals at school, free and reduced lunch programs (part of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act) have become politically charged.
While much of the discussion around these programs focuses on lunch, breakfast is an equally important piece of the puzzle. Experts say that having some food at the beginning of the day can promote a nutrient-rich diet overall and that missing meals can distract or impair normal development, especially for school-aged children. However, many children who are eligible for free school breakfast do not participate in the program.
To address this problem, some schools are offering routine breakfast in the classroom for all students in order to reduce the stigma for low-income children, highlight the importance of fueled minds (and stomachs) ready to learn, and make breakfast a new norm. In North Carolina, seven of Durham’s public schools are piloting a breakfast-in-the-classroom program that they believe will set students up for success each day. Research shows that more students show up on time to schools that incorporate breakfast, and that students who eat breakfast at school have higher attendance rates and score better on standardized math tests than their counterparts. Starting the day by bringing breakfast into the classroom establishes a structured routine and also allows teachers to incorporate the meal into their curriculum by, for example, discussing nutrition labels in math or science lessons.
Many schools, including some of the Durham schools, are benefiting from the USDA-administered Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This program provides all students in high-poverty schools with free breakfast and lunch, which streamlines mealtime and lessens the administrative burden on parents, school officials and cafeteria staff. In order to include those who might not otherwise be fed because of missing paperwork, the program addresses the importance of feeding children who most need nutritious meals by including the whole student population.
The conversations in Washington regarding the routine reauthorization are politically divided and are sure to be hotly contested before September 30th. Opponents of the measures cite how costly it will be to implement new standards that bring more fruits and vegetables into schools. However, maintaining the program at current funding levels or reducing investments may have implications that will be more costly in the long run, like poorer health outcomes, increased disciplinary problems and increased childhood obesity rates. I hope we can start this school year with a new routine, where all children get the food they need to learn and grow.
To learn more: The current Child Nutrition Reauthorization law, known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is routinely revisited every five years and is due for renewal by September 30, 2015. If you are interested in learning more about the programs included in the reauthorization, what they do or how they impact children’s health, here are a few recommended resources: Food Research and Action Center, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, Alliance for a Healthier Generation and No Kid Hungry.
Credits: Lyndon B. Johnson declared that “Good food is essential to good learning” at the signing of the Child Nutrition Act, 1966