Opinion: Hungry Children Need Healthy School Meals to Thrive

A pandemic-era program that supported hungry children is set to disappear at the end of June. Pediatricians urge a new focus on food for kids.

Opinion: Hungry Children Need Healthy School Meals to Thrive

"I just don't know what we're going to do. How will we get by?" Desmond's mother sat across from me, her son's pediatrician, during his annual well-child check. "The free breakfast and lunch at school has been a lifesaver for me financially and Desmond seems happier and more energetic. If we did not have access to this over the summer and into next school year, I don't know what we will do to afford food." As I sit across from her, I notice Desmond smiling, flipping through the pages of a colorful book. Unfortunately for Desmond, the meal benefits providing him high-quality and consistent meals via the pandemic-era Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waiver program are set to expire June 30, 2022.

Children, like Desmond, require consistent access to healthy, varied, and balanced meals and snacks in order to grow and develop to their full potential. Food, however, is an often overlooked component of childhood health. Limited or no access to these high-quality foods is associated with an array of poor mental outcomes, poor school performance, lower IQ, increased bullying, and adverse physical health outcomes including developmental delay, metabolic disorders, and obesity. Without access to food, children can have disrupted eating patterns, reduced food intake, or increased consumption of caloric-dense and high-fat foods.

Children in Texas are unfortunately more at risk for experiencing food insecurity, or lack of available financial resources for food at the household level. Here, 23% of children struggle with food insecurity compared to the national average of 14.6%. In central Texas, that number may be closer to 25%, or 1 out of every 4 children, per recent studies from the Central Texas Food Bank. While children like Desmond have benefited from longstanding programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, the Seamless Summer Option has been critical for combating food insecurity, and subsequently hunger, over the last few years by providing school districts more funding for high-quality meals year-round, bridging a summer gap experienced by thousands of Texas children.

The pandemic has made our nation face many hard truths; in the face of this adversity, many school districts, including Austin Independent School District, have utilized funding from SSO to provide free, high-quality, nutritious meals to all children during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this waiver is set to expire at the end of this month. What that means is that incredible lunches – like the whole-grain bed of rice with marinated chicken and pineapple pico de gallo, one of Desmond's favorites – will no longer be available to all children for free during the school year. The consequence of failing to extend this SSO waiver could mean the loss of wholesome and consistent nutrition for many of our nation's children in places where food scarcity and hunger are a palpable, daily struggle.

Congress could extend this vital program, but there is sentiment that the American people, especially children and families who had to shelter away from school during the pandemic, desire schools to go back to "normal." As pediatricians, as Texans, we cannot resign ourselves to the fact that hunger and food insecurity are the norm for our patients. We must implore our elected officials to consider children like Desmond in the equation when we decide to move forward with supporting hungry children in schools. We must continue to expand SSO, so that we don't continue to abandon hungry children in a post-pandemic world.

Elizabeth Mann and Tyler Badding are pediatricians in the Austin area. They are focused on the health of the whole child and regularly treat children that are hungry. The awareness of federally and state-funded programs that combat childhood hunger is an essential component of what they do and they are concerned about the fallout for Texas children who rely on school meals for sustenance.

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SSO, childhood hunger, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, Seamless Summer Option, school meals

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