On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will announce the expansion of a pilot program that gives all students, regardless of income, free school meals, including breakfast and lunch.
The original program targeted students in 11 states, but as of July 1, it will be expanded to 22,000 schools across the country where 40 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a sign of a high concentration of poverty. The administration says this will reach 9 million children and help them “eat health meals at school, especially breakfast, which can have profound impacts on educational achievement.”
Programs that give all students free meals come with a variety of benefits. It eliminates the stigma children on free or reduced-price meals can experience, particularly when schools throw out their lunches and stamp their hands when their balances run low.
It can also save schools and parents a big headache when it comes to paperwork. Just half of the students who are eligible for free breakfast actually receive it, perhaps due to complications with getting enrolled. And in Boston, where the school district made all students eligible for free meals, there had previously been many families who fell just outside the income limits for the free meal program and are now able to participate.
Adequate nutrition also has a huge impact on learning. Hunger has a big negative impact on cognitive and social development and makes children far more susceptible to mental illness — it’s a more significant factor in mental illness than poverty or family education level.
Yet hunger is a widespread problem among America’s schoolchildren. Three-quarters of the country’s teachers report having students who routinely show up hungry, and half say hunger is a serious problem in their classrooms. More than one in five American kids lacks steady access to food.