The Importance of School Meals in Food Deserts

Nadira Johnson
DrPH Student, Morgan State University School of Community Health and Policy


School meals play a critical role in ensuring children receive healthy meals. In fact, a study conducted by Tufts University found that schools serve the healthiest meals in America. For years, many districts were required to collect applications and income verification from families to determine eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. However, federal nutrition waivers allowed schools to provide free meals to all students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Free healthy school meals positively impact all students, but can be especially important for children living in food deserts. Food deserts are areas with limited access to healthy and affordable food. Communities in which 33% of the population are low-income and located more than one mile from a grocery store in an urban area or 10 miles in a rural area are considered food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For children living in food deserts, school is most likely where they receive their most nutritious meals.

Many children consume up to half of their caloric intake at school. School meals are vital for ensuring that children living in food deserts or experiencing food insecurity receive a well-balanced meal for breakfast and lunch. Because though food deserts are short on healthy, affordable food options, they are likely to have a variety of fast-food restaurants promoting unhealthy foods at a low cost. For families struggling to make ends meet and those with limited transportation options, food from the value menu at a fast-food restaurant is more affordable and accessible than a healthy meal from a grocery store that may be miles away. School meals provide a nutritious alternative for breakfast and lunch. In addition to supporting good nutrition, school meals are also positively associated with student mental health, physical health, and academic performance.

In many low-income communities, schools may participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows them to provide meals to all students at no cost. Instead, these schools use enrollment in other federal nutrition assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to determine eligibility and reimbursement. However, for students attending a school that is not a part of the CEP and living in a food desert, access to nutritious meals may be limited. Many families have reported being a few dollars short of qualifying for free or reduced priced lunches, but still in need. Similarly, some families may qualify for reduced lunch, but still may find it unaffordable. Students who are unable to afford school lunch are forced to bring their own lunch, incur school meal debt, or not eat at all.

For children living in food deserts, not having access to free school meals could prove detrimental to their academic success and overall well-being. Individuals who live in food deserts are shown to have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which are all public health concerns associated with higher mortality rates. Access to school meals for all children ensure no child falls through the cracks and can mitigate the poor health outcomes associated with living in a food desert for students.

Given the growing body of evidence that has shown that school meals are often the healthiest meals children consume, it is critical that all students continue to have access to them at no cost beyond the pandemic. Children living in food deserts are especially in need. Until affordable access to grocery stores, supermarkets, and community sustained agriculture are available everywhere, school meals remain the primary source of good nutrition for students residing in food deserts. All families should be able to rest easy knowing that their children are receiving the healthiest meals in America without experiencing a financial burden. The health and success of our future generations are dependent on school meals!

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