What if our leaders were hungry? | Opinion

Springfield Public Schools school meals

Students receive free breakfast and lunch as part of Explore, Springfield Public Schools’ summer learning program. The end of COVID-19 emergency measures means many families will begin paying for school meals again.(Photo courtesy of Springfield Public Schools)

It turns out, they are – they are just not leading yet. They are taking a bus to grade school instead of driving to the statehouse. In 2020, 6.1 million U.S. children (about the population of Missouri) lived in households where both adults and children struggled to keep food on the table.

Since early 2020, schools have been able to provide breakfast and lunch to students for free due to pandemic policy changes. However, with the school year at a close, so too is this federal provision.

The fate of school meals is at a critical crossroads. Adequate, nutritious food is a building block for a healthy generation and investing in school meals is vital to our nation’s future. What does our future look like if a large portion of our future leaders do not have enough to eat today?

For two years, students have experienced turbulence at school and at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic: losing connection to loved ones, adapting to virtual learning, and experiencing interrupted access to vital services. With this increased instability comes long lasting impacts on children’s health and wellbeing – we’ve seen concerns of childhood mental health issues soar over the last couple of years. 

These negative impacts are exacerbated by increased instances of hunger during the pandemic. Hunger can have lifelong impacts on children. For instance, children who experience food insecurity have higher instances of several serious health conditions, such as anemia, asthma, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Hungry children are also at higher risk of low academic performance and impaired social skills, essential building blocks for strong leadership. 

Recovering from the pandemic will call for a wide range of solutions and keeping children’s plates full may be one of the most important ways we help children recover and set up the next generation for success.

One proven way to feed children is through our National School Breakfast and Lunch programs. School meals are a primary source of food for children and have been shown to decrease food insecurity and poverty. In fact, in one study, school lunch was associated with a 14% decrease in food insufficiency, another measure used for hunger. 

School meals are also linked to a range of positive health and social outcomes including lower rates of reported poor health, fewer visits to the school nurse, positive impacts on mental health and behavior problems, improved school attendance, and enhanced academic performance.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen food insufficiency rates skyrocket as families dealt with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, families may have noticed a smaller bill as almost all schools offered meals to children at no charge due to federal and state policy changes geared at combating the growing need. However, Congress did not reauthorize this emergency measure and schools will return to normal pricing in the fall. 

This means that almost 20 million children who were receiving free meals at school will have to begin paying once again – reinstating a financial burden on families who are struggling to recover from the economic downturn. Although school meal costs may seem small, many families struggle with school meal debt due to the inability to pay. With rising food prices, this burden is multiplied. Providing free meals levels the playing field and allows all children, regardless of their ability to pay, to be nourished. 

You may be thinking, why should taxpayers pay for school breakfast and lunch for all children? Is it not the caregivers’ responsibility to provide food for their children? 

Perhaps a better question might be who are the responsible caregivers? Aren’t we all caregivers for our nation’s wellbeing? Is there a more important investment than the health of our future leaders? Sure, there are costs associated with providing free meals to all students across the country. However, allowing childhood hunger to persist and failing to support our next generation of leaders comes at a greater cost, a cost of health, wellbeing, and security. Remember, it will be these very leaders who will make decisions about our own care as we age. 

Children’s lives are shaped by the society and environments that we create. Providing free school meals beyond the pandemic is an important policy solution to reducing childhood hunger. Congress must permanently extend the free school meals provision to ensure our children are fed, healthy, and prepared to lead.

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Ellen Barnidge
Ellen Barnidge

Ellen Barnidge is Interim Dean, Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice, and Associate Professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and Health Education. She is a community- engaged scholar partnering with grassroots community leaders and community-based organizations.

Ally Siegler
Ally Siegler

Ally Siegler is a Research Manager at Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice. Her work focuses on improving access to healthy food and other basic resources through policy and systems-level interventions.