Why “Healthy School Meals for All” Matters

By Haley Anderson, Social Justice Fellow

My first experience in the field of education was as a Special Education Assistant in a public school in East Tennessee. I loved many aspects of that job, but my favorite part of the day was lunchtime. First, because of the hilarious and heartfelt conversations that would often take place around the lunch table. Second, because children with full stomachs are happy, healthy children. Now, I didn’t just enjoy lunch because it would take away my students’ (and my own) mid-day crankiness, I also knew that this may be their most substantial meal of the day, and it mattered quite a lot.

Lunchtime may not seem like a big deal to many, but to my students it was an assurance of a reliable meal. These wonderful children were primarily coming from low-income or immigrant families that depended on these free meals, because despite all the incredible hard work these parents did to support their children, the food budget was very tight. We were all thankful for the support the free and reduced lunch program provided these children.

Fast forward a couple of years, I began working at a private school in Boulder. My students there had lunch boxes filled with fully balanced meals and healthy food my students in Tennessee probably hadn’t even seen before (Believe it or not, we didn’t have much of a market for dried seaweed). In this classroom, the parents came together to provide pre-lunch and post-lunch snacks each week. Boy, could these kids eat! These snacks were a blessing, because hungry children can quickly become unfocused, tired, and a little more wild than usual. 

While sitting with these children, seeing their beautiful meals, and serving their organic/gluten free snacks, I remembered my first students. My unbrushed hair, cafeteria pizza loving students, and I was struck with the wealth/health disparities between these two classrooms. My first students relied on school provided food and snacks purchased by us teachers. They would often come to class looking tired and disoriented, leaning their heads on tables and wanting to nap. While my Boulder students lived with an abundance of food and energy. 

The differences here aren’t about a public/private divide, or even rural/urban differences. I know that if every parent had the means to provide their children with the quality and quantity of food my private school parents did, they would. But, the reality is that for many this is an impossibility, and these economic difficulties have only increased since the pandemic. Although we live in a country of abundance, where all our children could be given access to enough food to fill their bodies and energize their minds, we have opted instead to treat school food as if it is a scarcity, and ensure its presence only for a minority. The mere fact that it is only the minority that gets free meals, makes it all the more embarrassing for them to access what they need.

We must change this story. Thankfully, during the pandemic all children in Colorado have been able to access school lunches for free, whether or not they qualify on the free and reduced lunch program. This has decreased the stigma involved for those that do qualify, and has helped those families who may have been just on the brink of qualifying, are ashamed about signing up, or have not been educated on how to receive these benefits that their children desperately need. Not only has it helped financially and emotionally, but studies reviewed by the Food Research and Action Center have revealed that the provision of free healthy school meals are responsible for:

  • improving academic achievement, standardized test scores, and cognitive function ` 
  • improving attendance, which is positively linked to academic achievement;
  • reducing food insecurity, which is linked to poor academic outcomes;
  • improving nutrition, such as by increasing the consumption of fruit, vegetables, and milk.

This pandemic funding has aided our children’s mental, emotional, and physical health during an incredibly difficult time. Unfortunately, this funding will go away, although the hard times may be far from over. That doesn’t mean we have to leave Colorado children hungry. 

The Healthy School Meals for All bill would change our children’s relationship to food from one of scarce or limited resources, to one of health and sustainability. This bill would make it possible for all children in participating schools to have free school meals, regardless of their parent’s income. Additionally, it would help develop relationships between schools and local farmers, so that they could receive all the nutritional benefits of a farm to table meal, that doesn’t have the nutrients processed out. This helps our local agricultural economy, the environment, and our students’ health. Not only does it propose to develop these relationships, this bill also seeks to provide additional funding for those that lovingly prepare the food for our students, so that they can be fairly compensated as they transition into making food from scratch. The Healthy School Meals for All bill has the potential to help not only our children, but also our local economy. 

Now as I think back to my first students, I imagine the benefits this program would have had on them and my town. And I imagine all the invisible students, those that may have gone hungry because they were in lunch debt. Or those whose parents’ immigration status made them too scared to apply for assistance. And I imagine what would happen if they didn’t have to worry about that at all. I imagine full bellies, minds that are active and ready to learn, children that are excited to come to school, because instead of scarcity and shame, they will be met with abundance and health. I imagine local farmers whose lives have been made increasingly difficult by the pandemic and the subsidization of unsustainable farming practices, being given renewed purpose and resources to continue the good work of developing connections with the land and sharing them with the community. And I imagine the people who work diligently to provide meals for hundreds of students each day, falling asleep a little easier knowing that their valuable work is now reflected by their compensation. 

This dream can become a reality. Contact your legislators, or sign up to testify on February 16th, so that our lawmakers know you stand in support of Healthy School Meals for All, and you stand in support for all Colorado kids.