In 1962, President Kennedy designated the second week of October as National School Lunch Week to highlight the importance of school lunch in a child’s life. The National School Lunch Program, the government’s federally assisted meal program, serves nearly 30 million children every school day. That is 150,000,000 meals a week. Our nation’s school meal program is one of the largest nutrition programs in the world, and yet its role in America’s overall health is often overlooked. Amy Qazi, Second Harvest’s on-staff Registered Dietician, says “Nutrition plays a critical role in childhood development, which is why school lunches are so important! For many children, school lunches may be the only meals they receive during the day. Healthy school lunches equip them with important nutrients they need to nourish their mind and body, so they have the tools to thrive!” We must take time this week to recognize the importance of school lunch.
Learning can be hard work, and students must have a healthy and filling meal to get them through the school day. It isn’t even just a matter of having trouble focusing when you are hungry. A healthy diet has a direct impact on your ability to learn! Frontiers for Young Minds writes, “A healthy diet can increase the production of new neurons. What we eat can also affect the synaptic plasticity of the brain. Synaptic plasticity is simply a measure of the number of connections between neurons. The more the connections between neurons the better they can communicate, and the better we can learn, think, and memorize.” Simply put, healthy food helps our brain work to the best of its ability. The standards and guidelines set forth by the USDA have been specifically curated to prioritize the fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins necessary to help students think, learn, and grow.
A healthy meal at school doesn’t just help students’ physical health, it also improves their mental health. Sutter Health argues, “Processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.” Eating healthy doesn’t just have a physical impact on your brain, either. Everyone has a gut microbiome, which is what we call the collection of small organisms that live in our digestive tracts and help us digest food. Our gut microbiome helps us do a lot more than just digest food, too. According to the National Institute of Health, the gut microbiome “has also been shown to affect mental health including personality, mood, anxiety and depression.” It’s simple – when we eat food that makes our body happy, chemicals are released that make our brain happy! Foods such as those that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, oats, poultry, leafy greens, and more are all emphasized in school lunches for this exact reason.
School lunches help fight childhood hunger, help students live healthier lives, and, also bolster America’s agricultural industry. According to the USDA, school lunch supports “American agricultural producers through purchases of 100% American-grown and produced foods for use by schools and institutions participating in the National School Lunch Program.” Providing 150,000,000 meals a week is no small feat, either. Every year the USDA sets aside $200 million for states to purchase locally grown food for school meals. This money and the national school lunch program are a cornerstone of the American agriculture industry. When a student eats a school lunch they aren’t just getting a healthy meal, they are supporting local farms.
School lunch may not always be top of mind when it comes to fighting hunger or bolstering our country’s feeding programs. However, school lunches and the National School Lunch Program are as important to feeding our nation as programs like SNAP and WIC. Take a moment today to appreciate school lunches and all they do for America!