School meals provided by federal programs can offer healthy alternatives to the high-calorie, low-nutrition meals students might otherwise eat at home, and can also offer a nutritional lifeline to children in food-insecure households.

A Wednesday morning session at the APHA Annual Meeting, “Feeding Children During the School Year and Summer Months: Lessons Learned at the State & Local Levels,” featured research on local, state and federal school meal programs, which have become even more important given the economic hardships indirectly caused by COVID-19. (All the research presented was conducted pre-pandemic.)

girl with lunch trayThe School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have served an average of 45 million meals each day during a school year. Under the federal Community Eligibility Provision, qualifying schools and districts in high-poverty areas can serve the meals at no cost to students, regardless of household income.

Amelie Hecht, a National Poverty Fellow in residence at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented a study that measured the impact of the Community Eligibility Provision and involved about 200 eligible schools in Maryland during the 2015-16 school year. Researchers found that attendance and science test scores slightly improved and disciplinary referrals slightly dropped for students receiving free meals.

The study offers data for school officials who are considering participating in the provision program, Hecht said.

Studies already show that nutritional breakfasts improve students’ ability to learn and concentrate. And many states have passed legislation or district policies requiring schools to serve breakfast even after morning classes have begun. Breakfast After the Bell is the name of many such efforts.

No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group for free school meals, supports Breakfast After the Bell. Margaret Read, senior manager of research and policy analysis at No Kid Hungry, was on hand to talk about the program.

Breakfast After the Bell, Read said, “shifts the time that breakfast is served so that it’s part of the school day and moves breakfast from the cafeteria to where students are, like classrooms and commons areas.”

Read said the program affords students a wider window of time to eat breakfast, which can lead to better nutrition and improved learning.

Finally, Hannah Thompson, a research scientist at the University of California-Berkeley School of Public Health, presented results of a nutritional study of 24 California schools that banned chocolate milk in 2017. Nearly half were Community Eligibility Provision schools. Researchers compared data from the schools for the 2015-16 school year — when 8-ounce chocolate milk was available — with that of the 2017-18 school year, when the chocolate milk option was eliminated.

Each carton of chocolate milk contained 3.1 grams of added sugar, and studies show that excessive sugar can contribute to weight gain, potentially leading to obesity, metabolic syndrome and other chronic ailments.

“Removing chocolate milk modestly reduced student milk consumption without compromising average intake of key milk-related nutrients,” Thompson said. “Consumption of added sugars from milk declined significantly.”

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