Several programs, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP), provide children with healthy meals each day at school. Through these entitlement programs, children become eligible for free or reduced meals based on their households' incomes.
Serving over five billion lunches per year to qualified students, the main goal of the NSLP is to provide highly nutritious meals for children who may not otherwise have access to a proper diet. These meals often feed children who live in food-insecure households or who may, for a variety of reasons, have inadequate access to the necessary calories and nutrients for healthy functioning. In 2011, the NSLP operated in over 101,000 public and nonprofit schools and residential care institutions. They served low-cost or free lunches to over 31 million children, with 59% of the meals provided free of charge.
The meals served in the NSLP must reach certain nutrition standards to emphasize the importance of a balanced healthy diet. No more than 30% of the calories served must come from fat, and less than 10% from saturated fat, according to NSLP guidelines. The program is increasingly using more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy products in the preparation of meals, although progress in this arena is lagging in some areas of the country.
Besides providing food to children who would otherwise go without, the benefits of these meals to children are plentiful. Studies show that healthy eating promotes optimal development, reduces the risk of chronic diseases and psychosocial dysfunctions, and reduces the risk of obesity and its attendant problems. The USDA found that children who participated in NSLP had superior nutritional intake compared with those who did not. In addition to the health benefits, nutritious meals make it easier for kids to concentrate in class, bolster school attendance, and boost school achievement.
While these programs are beneficial in helping those they do reach, there are still areas for significant improvement. Even among children who are eligible for free school meals without having to apply (because they come from households already enrolled in other entitlement programs), as many as one in seven fail to receive certification because of various types of access barriers. These statistics mean that a noteworthy number of children are going through the school day hungry.
The aspect that needs the most improvement is the School Breakfast Program (SBP). One in eight schools that offer NSLP does not offer breakfast, causing only half of the children who eat free or reduced-price lunch to eat breakfast.
In order to ensure that the needs of all children are met, these programs, especially the SBP, must be strengthened. A major problem in the past few years has been that total federal expenditures on school meals have increased from $5.9 billion to more than $10 billion annually, which mostly reflects the rise in food and overhead costs because participation rates have only increased from 26.2 million children to 31.6 million in the same time period.
NETWORK supports adequate funding for these programs, as they meet the basic needs of American children, often providing the only nutritious daily meal a child eats.