School Meals Provide Nutrition Safety Net

One of my favorite inspirational readings ends with the line “Face reality and unwilled change will happen.” If our communities are to thrive, here is a reality that our society has to face: Too many families struggle to put food on the table.

In fact, in 2014, one in six households in Missouri said there had been times throughout the year when they did not have enough money to buy the food they needed. Given that 40 percent of Missouri non-elderly households have incomes of less than $33,000 annually, it is easy to see how so many face food insecurity.

Thankfully school meals provide a nutrition safety net for many of these families. The School Breakfast Program provides a healthy morning meal for an average of more than 216,000 low income students each day in Missouri. Beginning the day with a nutritious morning meal is essential to a child’s ability to focus and learn. Eating a healthy breakfast is also linked with a lower rate of obesity, a decrease in tardiness and absences, and fewer disciplinary problems.

The Food Research and Action Center issues an annual School Breakfast Scorecard that presents data based on national and state level participation. The report for the 2013–2014 school year ranked Missouri 14th of all 50 states, serving 56.9 low-income students school breakfast for every 100 that participated in school lunch.

There are barriers to participation in school breakfast, such as long bus rides that interfere with the ability to eat breakfast before the school day begins – or sadly, stigma that remains associated with free meals. Still participation is on the rise in Missouri and nationally.

Increased participation in school breakfast programs can be credited to innovative strategies aimed at making it easier for all students to access school breakfast. Schools have begun serving breakfast in the classrooms and making it a regular start to the school day. This reduces the stigma for students in the school breakfast program, and it ensures that everyone has time to eat.

The “Grab and Go” strategy allows students to pick up a bagged meal from carts in the hallway on their way to class. “Second Chance” is yet another strategy, which provides students with breakfast after the first period, which works well for high school students.

Another new opportunity for schools is the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high poverty schools to provide free meals to all students, while reducing the school’s administrative burdens. More food for children and less red tape. What’s not to like?

The upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization in Congress provides an opportunity for our nation to “face reality” and improve and strengthen school meals and other child nutrition programs. The Senate Committee on Agriculture will hold their first hearing on child nutrition programs on May 7. It is important that advocates, parents, and educators encourage their members of Congress to make these good programs even stronger.

This blog post is part of A Healthy 10.

Jeanette Mott Oxford is executive director of Empower Missouri, Empower Missouri, formerly Missouri Association for Social Welfare, is dedicated to ensuring social justice for all Missourians. Founded in 1901, the non-partisan organization educates and empowers Missourians on issues including hunger, housing, education, health and economic opportunity.

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