The Impact of Food Accessibility on Mental Health and Overall Well-Being of Students and Families
Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
Children’s mental health is an important component of their overall wellness – and good nutrition is a basic building block of both wellness and school performance. It’s concerning, therefore, that the United States may soon experience increased child hunger due to upcoming reductions of federal support for school breakfast and lunch programs. In response to school closures during the pandemic, Congress expanded access to school feeding programs so that more students and their families could receive meals. Currently, reauthorization of these and other waivers that helped families receive food during the summer and into SY 2022-2023 is now facing stiff opposition in congress.
For many students and families, school breakfasts and lunches are viewed as a lifeline where students receive free and low-cost meals. Prior to the pandemic, more than half of US schoolchildren came from households that qualified for free and reduced meals. Schools served almost 30 million students free and reduced lunches, totaling almost 5 billion meals annually. Summers have been more of a challenge for families as only 1 in 7 eligible students are provided with meals due to barriers such as outdated regulations for providing breakfasts and lunches, limited distribution sites, or lack of transportation to these sites. In a 2020 survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), during the initial phase of the pandemic, there was a significant increase in food insecurity, after years of decline. Students lost out on nutrition as households reported a more severe range of food insecurity in which children were hungry, skipped a meal, or did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.
In response to the pandemic, Congress had authorized the USDA to allow other additional waivers that included dropping meals off at a child’s home or letting families pick up enough meals to cover multiple days at a time. The effect was a significant reduction in food shortage rates in 2021. In May 2022, with the waivers set to expire in June, the Biden administration signed the Keep Kids Fed Act which provided summer programs with extra resources and kept the waivers in place. However, it did not extend for SY 2022-2023, the universal free lunch program begun in 2010 for high poverty districts to provide free meals for all students.
In July, the House Committee on Education and Labor released the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, the proposed Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that would make more children and families eligible for school lunches, updates and modernizes the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and shields those who have unpaid meal bills. As of mid-August the bill has not been voted on, so there is reason for both hope and concern. Lisa Davis of Share Our Strength, an organization fighting childhood hunger, states that this reauthorization is an opportunity to modernize and strengthen child nutrition programs. They do not want families to have to continually make the choice between feeding their children and paying other important expenses.
There are not many good things to come out of the COVID 19 pandemic, but increased access to necessary nutrition for children via an expanded school lunch program is one of them. America’s school children have a lot of academic ground and social emotional learning to make-up, so having the nutrition they need to get through a school day is essential to help in that process.