America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and, yet, every day millions of children go hungry. In fact, more than 13 million children live in “food insecure” homes meaning that their families don’t have enough food to eat on a regular basis.
To combat child hunger, there are a number of programs that provide free or low-cost lunches for students but even these lunches aren’t always healthy. Research shows time and again just how important a healthy lunch is not only for child growth and development but also for student performance.
In this article, we’ll explore the importance of a healthy lunch for public school students as well as some of the problems facing school lunches today. We’ll also talk about a topic that is currently trending – meal delivery services for student lunches.
This TED Talk discusses the impact of school meals.
How Does a Healthy Lunch Impact Student Performance?
If you’ve ever skipped breakfast before heading to work, you’re probably familiar with that mental fog that starts to set in around mid-morning. Without a healthy breakfast to jump-start your metabolism and to provide fuel for your body, it becomes difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. Now, imagine experiencing that on a daily basis as a child.
While there is no doubt that missing meals can have a detrimental effect on child growth and student performance, new research shows that the nutritional quality of a meal can impact performance as well. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of School Health, grade-school students who ate a fast-food lunch scored lower on standardized literary assessments than students who ate a healthy lunch. A follow-up study in 2012 supported these results, linking fast food to a decline in both math and reading scores.
But how exactly does poor nutrition impact student performance?
Specific nutritional deficiencies that have been shown to impact the cognitive development of children include zinc, B vitamins, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. High intake of trans fats and saturated fats have also been shown to negatively impact cognition. As you can imagine, these things will also affect the student’s ability to learn and excel in school.
In addition to these direct effects on cognition and academic performance, poor nutrition can also indirectly affect a child’s academic success. Students who don’t receive a balanced diet are more likely to become sick which could lead to the missed class. The more school a child misses, the further they fall behind and becomes a compounding problem that could affect the child’s entire educational career.
This video discusses how nutrition affects school performance.
The Problem with School Lunches
The largest provider of public school lunches is the School Nutrition Association (SNA). With 55,000 members, this program serves lunch in roughly 100,000 different schools each day. Here are some statistics about the public school lunch program:
- Roughly 30 million students are served by public school lunch programs every day.
- More than 2 million students receive free lunches because their family income is at or below 130% of the poverty level.
- About 5 million students receive reduced-price lunches because their family income is between 130% and 185% of the poverty level.
- Roughly 7 million students pay full price for meals at a price set by the school district.
To give you some context, 130% of the poverty level in 2016 was $31,005 for a family of four, and 185% of the poverty level was $44,123. While it is a good thing that so many students receive free or reduced-price lunches, these statistics point toward a disturbing truth – if over millions of students are receiving free or reduced-price lunches due to their family’s socioeconomic status, it is very likely that school lunch is their only nutritious meal of the day. In some cases, it may be their only meal of the day.
Free or not, a healthy lunch is incredibly important for growing students. Unfortunately, there are many problems with public school lunches. In many cases, the meals students will actually eat are not healthy (things like pizza and French fries). On the flip side, even a healthy meal is not nutritious if the student never actually eats it.
In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which made serious changes to public school lunches – changes that hadn’t been made in decades. The most important of these was introducing higher nutrition standards. While these new standards are great, it puts public schools in a difficult position of increasing the quality of their school lunches without significantly increasing the cost. The simple fact is that unhealthy foods are generally less expensive and easier to prepare for an entire school’s worth of students.
Recent data suggest that while the nutritional value of school lunches has improved over the past few years, fewer students are buying or eating school lunches. The number of students receiving subsidized lunches is up slightly, but the number of students buying lunches at regular prices is down. As a result, many schools have decided to give up federal cafeteria subsidies, so they can escape the constraints of federal nutrition standards and go back to offering lunches that actually sell.
Could Meal Delivery Services Be the Solution?
A rising trend in the food industry is meal delivery services. Companies like Blue Apron and Plated ship boxes of prepped ingredients along with simple recipes, enabling subscribers to cook homemade meals without having to go to the grocery store. These services make it possible to introduce variety into your diet and to enjoy healthy meals without some of the hassles.
Meal delivery services have even begun expanding into the school sector.
For many parents, preparing a healthy homemade lunch is just one more item on a long list of responsibilities. Like the schools themselves, parents must walk the line between creating a meal that is nutritious and creating a meal that their children will actually eat. There is also the problem of finding time to prepare this lunch on a daily basis.
Red Apple Lunch is a lunch delivery service that serves the greater Boston area. Started by two busy moms, this company works with regional suppliers to source, prep, and package healthy foods that are attractive to kids. Parents choose from a number of different meal options each week and customize their delivery schedule for the following week.
This video reports on students using meal-delivery services in school.
This service isn’t the only one of its kind – there are a number of student lunch delivery services popping up all over the country. Here are some of the others:
- Revolution Foods (Nationwide) – This service was created in 2006 and it is available for free to students on the National School Lunch Program.
- Chefables (San Francisco Bay Area) – This program was designed for childcare centers, serving children between the ages of 1 and 8 years.
- Organic Kids (Los Angeles) – This service was founded in 2011 and uses 100% organic fruits and vegetables along with grass-fed meat and free-range chicken.
- Wholesome Food Services (Colorado, Texas, Chicago) – This service partners with local restaurants to provide student lunches.
- Smart Lunches (East Coast & Chicago) – This program allows parents to choose from over 50 rotating menu items including a variety of side items.
- Red Rabbit (New York City) – This service was founded in 2005 and is based in Harlem – nothing is frozen, fried, or processed.
- Choicelunch (California) – This program was founded by a husband-wife duo and offers 16 daily choices, delivering them in compostable boxes.
If you’re looking for a way to make sure that your public-school child enjoys a healthy lunch but you aren’t looking to spend a lot of time prepping one yourself, meal delivery services like these could be the solution to your problem. This niche is growing rapidly so even if this service isn’t available where you live right now, it might be in the near future.
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