Now is the time to support healthy school meals for all Iowa kids

Lunch at Kirkwood Elementary School in Coralville in 2013. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

I am a retired school food service director and member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of nutrition professionals in the country. Every day we see the negative impact of poor nutrition on children. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most children’s diets fell short of dietary recommendations for good health. Now more than ever, as our country recovers from the pandemic, the nutrition of our children must be a top priority. As Congress plans to reauthorize vital child nutrition programs, it is imperative to factor in lessons learned from the pandemic, when how to feed children when schools were closed became critical.

The recently introduced Universal School Meals Program Act would permanently allow every school-age child to have school meals at no charge. There is a direct correlation between well-nourished and fit children and academic success. School meals provide the nutrition children need to be successful in school. Academic success results in more students being prepared for skilled jobs in science, technology, business and industry, and other emerging fields.

In an April 2021 diet quality report released by researchers at Tufts University, results showed “diet quality for foods from schools improved significantly, especially after 2010, and equitably across subgroups; by 2017-2018, food consumed at schools had the highest quality, followed by food from grocery stores, other sources, worksites, and restaurants.” When children do not have access to healthy meals, hunger and malnutrition can take a toll on children’s overall health, mental well-being, and school success. Since the early days of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed school nutrition programs to provide meals at no charge to all public school students; this guidance has been extended through the 2021-22 school year. Making this a permanent change would be a game changer for millions of children and families from across the country.

Increased school meal participation is a win-win for all by not only providing high quality nutritious school meals for children but also stimulating the economy. Increased participation benefits the food industry from local farmers and growers to food production, food technology and manufacturing, sales, marketing and distribution all of which create more high paying, skilled jobs. More job opportunities are also created in school nutrition, be it production or food service management. As a retired school food service director, the rate of pay for our entry level positions was well above the minimum wage and our full-time positions, defined as 30 hours per week, included benefits. Also, as more children participate in the program, school production and service facilities will be improved which stimulates food service equipment manufacturing while additionally creating more jobs in facility engineering and construction.

Finally, when I retired seven years ago, our program had thousands of dollars of school meal debt. A universal school meal program eliminates unpaid school meal debt, now being reported by 75 percent of U.S. school districts, and ends the practice of either providing an alternate meal or refusing meals to students with unpaid meal charges.

Investing in school nutrition programs is more important than ever. As stated, the benefits of the Universal School Meals Program Act are many: permanently providing healthy meals and snacks to all school-age children at no charge regardless of income; eliminating school meal debt and strengthening local economies, business and industry. Now is absolutely the time to invest in nutrition and put healthy school meals within easy reach for all children in order to safeguard their health and ensure academic success.

Let your member of Congress know you support healthy school meals for all!

Diane Duncan-Goldsmith retired after 25 years as director of food service for the Iowa City Community School District for 25 years. She also is a former registered dietitian.