When he was campaigning for re-election in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt took time in Boston to talk about the country’s school lunch program. FDR said that “milk does those children more good than political soothing syrup.”
The U.S. has built up its school lunch program through the Great Depression, World War II and with the National School Lunch Act of 1946. (photo courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)
As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, it should be a call to action to our political leaders to put aside partisanship and support child nutrition. It could not be more urgent. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 16 million children in the U.S. live in food-insecure households. Families are struggling to get food on the shelves.
Our national school lunch and breakfast programs, which provide free or reduced price meals, serve as a critical line of defense against child hunger. Cincinnati, with the Children’s Hunger Alliance of Ohio and USDA, has set a great example by providing free breakfast for all its public school students K-12.
But when school is out, children living in poverty, especially during these tough economic times, are vulnerable. The charity Feeding America supports school pantries, which allow needy families to get take-home rations to fill in these gaps when schools are closed.
Jennifer Small of the Maryland Food Bank is working to establish such pantries in the Eastern shore of her state. The demand for food assistance there has grown. In fact, nationwide the demand for food assistance has gone up, making school pantries and other programs all the more vital.
Small says: “It is so important to ensure children are fed so they can thrive in school. By assisting them and their families with take-home rations for dinners and/or weekend meals, this helps keep them fed so they can concentrate and receive a well-rounded nutritional meal.”
An area of huge glaring weakness is the summer feeding program. Many children who get free or reduced price meals during the school year are unable to access them in the summer. The problem is how to distribute the food when schools are closed.
This is an area where political and community leaders need to work together so that when next summer comes, food assistance does not take a vacation. Hunger certainly does not take the summer off.
Feeding America reports: “During the 2010 federal fiscal year, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Unfortunately, just 2.3 million of these same income-eligible children participated in the Summer Food Service Program that same year.”
USDA says it is testing “home delivery of meals and a backpack food program for kids” on days when the summer feeding program is not available. Political leaders can encourage community-based solutions to summer feeding. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio has been very active in this regard.
As President Obama said when proclaiming National School Lunch Week: “Children are America’s greatest treasure, and ensuring their health is one of our most important duties as parents, families, and community members. Our children’s continued ability to learn in the classroom, grow up healthy, and reach their full potential will depend on what we do now to secure their future.”
School feeding has become integral to our country for generations now. No less important are school meals for children in other countries. For our foreign policy, we have to think of school feeding.
We did this after World Wars I and II, when the U.S. supported school feeding to help countries and their children through the harshest of times. American charities even helped provide meals in Nazi- invaded Norway so children’s nutrition did not suffer amid food shortages and the occupation. The reconstruction of Europe after the war included millions of school meals for children.
The U.S. Food for Peace and now the McGovern-Dole programs support school meals overseas. Haiti, for instance, has a school feeding initiative, which is essential to the recovery of the country. The UN World Food Programme, Haiti’s government and donations from the U.S., Brazil, Canada and others are making this program work.
The World Food Programme provides meals at this school UNICEF rebuilt after the earthquake. The U.S. Congress is debating whether to reduce food aid, including school meal initiatives like the McGovern-Dole program which supports Haiti. Currently U.S. spending on food aid accounts for less than one tenth of one percent of the entire federal budget. (WFP/Stephanie Tremblay)
But funding is always an issue. Sadly, proposed budget cuts by Congress will threaten our ability to provide school meals in developing countries. In Afghanistan, for example, there has been such low funding that the World Food Programme may be forced to cease its program feeding 2 million children. This has devastating consequences, because without nutrition and education, no society can advance and have peace.
We will all have a much brighter future if we ensure that all children around the world have access to school meals. As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, let’s remember nutrition is critical for children here and abroad.