Eating Right, Learning Right

The important link between children’s health and their education is being highlighted this week with the celebration of National School Lunch Week. This year’s theme is “School Lunch – Let’s Grow Healthy,” as part of a three-month long campaign by the School Nutrition Association to highlight the importance of school lunch programs. Common sense tells us that children with empty stomachs can’t concentrate on classroom learning or homework. With this in mind, schools and pre-K programs often offer snacks and meals throughout the day to make sure children are fully prepared to learn and excel. The federal Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), administered through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides guidelines for serving nutritious meals and snacks in child care centers and afterschool programs. In addition, providing nutritious meals to children is a key component of the federal Head Start program’s services to low-income children and families.

Each year, NIEER gives state pre-K initiatives a rating based on meeting 10 quality standards benchmarks, which address a variety of quality components including services such as meals. As we stated in The State of Preschool 2010, “these items are included because children’s overall well-being and success in school involves not only their cognitive development but also their physical and social/emotional health.” In order to meet our benchmark on meals, state programs must require by policy that all programs, regardless of hours of operation, offer at least one meal each day.

Unfortunately, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 24 of 52 state-funded pre-K programs met the benchmark of at least one meal being required in state policy. (See Table 1 for a list of the programs meeting the benchmark for required meals.) Twenty of these 24 programs specifically mention lunch in their meal requirements.

Table 1. State programs requiring at least one meal in all pre-K classes

Alabama Louisiana LA4 Oregon
Alaska Louisiana NSECD Pennsylvania HSSAP
Arkansas Maryland Rhode Island
Delaware Minnesota South Carolina CDEPP
Georgia New Jersey Abbott Tennessee
Iowa Shared Visions New Mexico Washington
Kentucky North Carolina West Virginia
Louisiana 8(g) Oklahoma Wisconsin Head Start

However, only five programs – Pennsylvania EABG, Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK, Vermont Act 62, Vermont EEI, and Virginia – reported that no meals or snacks are required by state policy. The remaining 23 programs either reported that snacks were required and/or that meals are required for full-day programs but not half-day programs.

For the 2009-2010 school year, we also asked states to report on whether meals and snacks need to meet nutritional guidelines and found that all but 10 programs require this. (See Table 2 for a list of those programs not requiring programs to use nutritional guidelines.) Of those meeting nutritional guidelines, all were using federal nutrition guidelines set by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Table 2. State programs not requiring the use of nutritional guidelines

Florida Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK
Illinois Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts
Nevada Rhode Island
New Jersey ELLI Vermont Act 62
Pennsylvania EABG Vermont EEI

The federal Head Start program’s nutritional guidelines play a role here as all five state programs that are Head Start supplements met the benchmark for meals. This is particularly noteworthy in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the states’ other pre-K initiatives do not meet the meal requirement benchmark while the Head Start supplements do.

As with any other of the quality standards we report on in the State Preschool Yearbook series, it is important to remember that we are discussing policy here and not necessarily practice. While not every state policy requires that all programs offer at least one meal, some, or perhaps even all, of those programs may exceed the policy and do so. Still, with only 24 state pre-K programs on the record with a commitment to providing their students with at least one meal a day, we have a long way to go before we can truly celebrate school nutrition.

Child nutrition is of increasing concern as childhood obesity rates increase while food insecurity also spreads. President Obama’s proclamation of this week pointed to the need for collaboration throughout communities to bring students healthy food every day at school, a goal toward which we still work. At a time when Sesame Street has created a new Muppet to address the issue of food insecurity—the 17 million children in families who don’t know where their next meal comes from—it is clear that providing nutritious, consistent meals to children in school can go a long way to improving their daily lives.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER