As students begin a new school year, U.S. Department of Agriculture data confirm that too many children — nearly 16 million — live in families that continue to struggle to afford adequate food, known as “food insecurity.” While many parents in these households can shield their children from hardship, in more than half of them, children themselves were food insecure. Poor diets and the stress of not knowing when their next meal will be take an enormous and lasting toll on children’s health, development, and readiness to learn.
That’s why the federal nutrition programs that serve children are so important. Consider the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, well-established programs that have been feeding millions of children for decades, and that keep improving. These programs reach a striking share of American children. On a typical day during the past school year, more than 30 million — nearly three in five — students ate a school lunch. Some 71 percent of those children — more than 21 million — received a free or reduced-price meal. That means that more than two in five students benefited from free or reduced-price lunches on a typical day last year (see chart).
Despite this extraordinary reach, some children who could benefit from free school meals miss out because their school district doesn’t automatically enroll them as required. But states and school districts can take steps to ensure that the most vulnerable children receive free meals.
For example, states can improve the processes for automatically enrolling children for free meals when their family receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamp) benefits. School districts can make sure they are identifying children who are homeless or in foster care so that they begin receiving free meals immediately during a period of family turmoil. And under a new policy that’s especially important at the start of the school year, schools can begin feeding low-income children as soon as they receive an application, even if they have a processing backlog.
This school year, high-poverty schools across the country also have a new opportunity, under the Community Eligibility Provision, to feed all students at no cost while simplifying their meal programs. Thousands of schools have already implemented community eligibility and states may continue to accept applications from eligible districts to offer community eligibility for this school year.
For the millions of children in families that struggle to afford nutritious food, being able to count on receiving two healthy meals each school day is a critical support.