August 22, 2022

There is considerable evidence of the effective role that school meals play in alleviating poverty and food insecurity, supporting good nutrition, boosting learning, and improving health outcomes. However, nearly 60 percent of children just above the cutoff for free school meals are children of color. Healthy School Meals for All can serve as a critical tool in the fight to achieve racial equity, improving educational and health outcomes for students, particularly Black and Latinx students, by allowing schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost.

Black and Latinx children across the U.S. have historically experienced food insecurity at a disproportionately high rate, a trend that continues today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2019–2020, 18.8 percent of Black children and 15.7 percent of Latinx children lived in food-insecure households, compared to 6.5 percent of white children. Although not measured by the CDC, research indicates that food insecurity among Indigenous people and certain Asian American and Pacific Islander ethnic subgroups is also significantly higher than average.

These racial disparities exist because of longstanding systemic racism and injustice. Decades of housing segregation, employment discrimination, and over-policing are a few of the wide-ranging barriers that have resulted in higher levels of food insecurity among communities of color. Thus, issues of food justice are also issues of racial justice.

Participation in school meals improves academic achievement, standardized test scores, and cognitive function. It also boosts attendance and improves student behavior. Research shows that food insecurity impairs students’ social skills and ability to learn in the classroom. Expanding no-cost healthy school meals to all students could help counter educational disparities that are exacerbated by hunger and help close racial achievement gaps. It can act as a key academic support to ensure that students of color can thrive inside and outside of the classroom.

Nutritious food is also important for students’ growth and development. Research has found that school meals are the healthiest meals children receive each day. Participating in school meals improves nutrition and mental health, and reduces obesity rates and diet-related disease. Reducing obesity in childhood not only provides immediate benefits, but can also reduce the risk of mental and physical health problems later in life. Healthy School Meals for All extends these benefits to all students, which could help reduce longstanding health disparities caused by systemic racism.

Healthy School Meals for All has the potential to be transformative for students of color. To learn more about the benefits of Healthy School Meals for All, visit FRAC’s new microsite.