Keeping School Children Fed and Healthy

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School lunch regulation takes on new importance during COVID-19, as families struggle to access nutritious meals.

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The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has helped feed schoolchildren in the United States for nearly 75 years. Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the program provides free or low-cost lunches at school with a focus on healthy, well-balanced meals.

The U.S. Congress established the NSLP following the 1946 National School Lunch Act, and the NSLP now constitutes one of the country’s largest food assistance programs. In 2018, the NSLP provided free or reduced-cost lunches to just under 30 million children daily. Of the nearly five billion school lunches served that year, almost three-quarters were “free or at a reduced price.”

School lunch menus are “a product of meticulous rules and regulations.” Children’s enrollment in certain federal assistance programs, family size, and household income determine their eligibility for free or reduced-price NSLP meals.

Schools must serve meals that meet federal nutritional standards and requirements to receive funding under the NSLP. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which set new meal health standards for school lunches. This law updated nutritional standards to provide school children with “more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy, as well as less sugar, fat, and sodium.”

Recent USDA initiatives have also worked to ensure school meals are healthy. USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program, established in 2012, uses school grants “to improve access to local foods” and increase student interest in healthy foods. This program not only supplies schools with locally grown foods but also provides “hands-on learning activities such as school gardening, farm visits, and culinary classes.”

Now, with COVID-19 shutting down schools across the country, the school lunch program faces new challenges. For example, USDA has waived NSLP requirements for the 2020 through 2021 academic year to allow certain schools to “serve individually plated meals in classrooms instead of in a communal cafeteria” and “offer complete meals for delivery or pickup for students doing distance learning.”

This week’s Saturday Seminar highlights ongoing discussions surrounding school meals and the NSLP, as well as other relevant food access issues for students.

  • In a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Boise State University’s Lindsey Turner and several coauthors analyze state laws governing the length of school lunch periods and the service and promotion of school meals. They found that state laws recommending or requiring minimum lengths of school lunch periods and promotional strategies such as taste tests were “positively associated” with the implementation of these practices. Because both of these practices “impact student-level outcomes,” they argue that promoting these practices “could help to improve many aspects of the lunchtime experience for students,” including student participation in meal programs.
  • Can requiring healthier school meals impact student achievement? In an article published in the Journal of Public Economics, the University of California, Berkeley’s Michael L. Anderson and Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie and Montana State University’s Justin Gallagher found that schools that engaged “healthy school-meal vendors” had higher standardized test scores than those that did not. By analyzing data from the California Department of Education, Anderson and his coauthors found that healthier school meals increased test scores regardless of the “demographic characteristics of the students, school district expenditures, student-teacher ratios, and changes in school leadership.” Anderson and his coauthors argue that, at the cost of 27 dollars per year per student, healthy school meals are a cost-effective way to improve student outcomes.
  • Incidence of childhood obesity correlates with academic performance, the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law’s Cheryl “Shelly” Taylor Page claims. In an article published in the University of California Davis Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy, Page suggests that health issues brought on by obesity can contribute to low academic performance through increased absenteeism, fatigue, low self-esteem, and a lack of interest in school activities. Policymakers, educators, and parents can help alleviate these problems with more comprehensive regulations that examine school policies, legislative efforts, and familial practices collectively, she argues. The challenge in this approach, Page asserts, is how to “navigate the terrain of a society that idealizes thin but denounces fat” while communicating healthy habits to children to eliminate obesity as a contributor to poor academic performance.
  • The NSLP has become “a national ritual of broad ethnic, cultural, racial, and political significance,” the University of Oklahoma College of Law’s Melissa Mortazavi claims in a Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy article. By focusing on food’s nutritional value, the NSLP ignores food’s social value and “unwittingly creates a culturally homogenizing force” within U.S. schools, according to Mortazavi. To remedy this shortcoming, she argues, Congress and USDA should revise the statutes and regulations that govern the NSLP to use school meals to promote inclusivity. Mortazavi proposes that USDA give schools greater flexibility in meal form and nutritional standards “to allow for inclusion of more cultural staples,” similar to its 2016 change permitting tofu as a meat alternative for school meals.
  • Congress should revise the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to address hunger and food insecurity on college campuses, attorney Erika M. Dunyak claims in a Journal of Food Law and Policy article. SNAP is designed to help people with low incomes buy food and acts as a monthly monetary benefit program for eligible recipients. Although the federal government provides food security for children through the NSLP and for working people below the poverty line through SNAP, Dunyak notes that college students “have outgrown NSLP and are excluded from SNAP.” Congress should remove SNAP’s explicit exclusion of four-year college students, she argues, and exempt them from SNAP’s work requirements. Beside reducing students’ hunger, this change could also alleviate debt that many college students face upon graduation and allow for stronger financial management skills, according to Dunyak.
  • COVID-19 has interrupted many school lunch programs, making feeding children from low-income families central to the United States’ pandemic response, according to an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In the article, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Caroline G. Dunn, Erica Kenney, and Sara N. Bleich and Georgetown University Law Center’s Sheila E. Fleischhacker highlight the challenges that financially fragile families face due, in part, to the pandemic’s impact on the “federal nutrition safety net.” The pandemic, Dunn and her coauthors emphasize, has created the need to provide food security and ensure nutritional needs for millions of vulnerable children. To address the rise in food insecurity during COVID-19, Dunn and her coauthors suggest introducing policies that improve SNAP access, centralize information on school districts offering free meals, and extend emergency benefits for families.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.