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School Meals Support Student Success

October 9th marks the beginning of National School Lunch Week.  National School Lunch Week was created in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, who believed that a healthy and nutritious lunch was vital in supporting a child’s success inside and outside the classroom. However, lunch is not the only meal that is provided for our students. The School Breakfast Program began in 1966 to ensure that no student entered the classroom without being fed in the morning.

Vivian Nicholson is the Program Breakfast Director at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance in Little Rock. In her role at the Alliance, Nicholson works with the child nutrition director in more than 250 school districts within Arkansas to increase participation in breakfast, lunch, and summer feeding programs. When asked about the importance of high participation in these programs, specifically the breakfast program, she stated, “A hungry child cannot learn.” There has been extensive research that has shown if a student walks into the classroom without having been fed in the morning, it will hinder their ability to pay attention and learn. Nicholson also added, “Children have better attendance, less discipline problems, and are more attentive when they are not hungry.  All these things help a child score better on their testing.”

Not only is it important that our students are fed each meal at school, but they must also be fed the right foods and nutrients to sustain their energy throughout the day.  Despite many people’s beliefs, schools and nutrition directors can’t feed the kids whatever they want. There are very strict guidelines set in place by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that tell them what can or cannot be served at breakfast and lunch. Nicholson noted that there are requirements that a school must follow for each meal, each day, and each week.  She added that they also have requirements for every food group, including fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and dairy.  An example she provided was that the vegetables included in students’ weekly meals must be from multiple different color groups.  Therefore, a school could not provide only green vegetables in a week. The menu is well thought out and planned months in advance to meet the USDA requirements she detailed.

School meals have been notoriously talked about as being gross and ill-prepared in unsanitary kitchens. However, Nicholson believes this is far from the truth. She explained that the kitchens in schools are some of the cleanest kitchens and that they have multiple inspections to ensure safety, even more inspections than most restaurants. In addition to inspections, all the workers receive extensive training on how to prepare the food in a clean and safe manner.

School meals largely support City Year’s Whole Child, Whole School methodology. A child’s health plays a role in their success inside the classroom. One in five children faces hunger in Arkansas. The pandemic exacerbated a lot of the food insecurity that we see in our state. In 2018, 11% of Arkansas families with children were victims of food insecurity. That number grew to 15% after the pandemic, which is higher than the national average. Black and Latino families experience this at higher rates than their white counterparts. This is why our nutrition directors, cafeteria workers, and people like Vivian Nicholson are so crucial to our schools in guaranteeing that our students are fed to build a more equitable state and education system.




Feeding America

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

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