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Back to School: Food for the stomach, food for the mind

This is the fourth of a Back to School blog series (see Part 1 [1], Part 2 [2], Part 3 [3] and Part 5 [4]) that highlight various issues to be aware of as the 2016-17 school year kicks off.

Ensuring that students arrive to class with enough food in their stomach is an important ingredient for student success. Adequate nutrition reduces the negative effects of hunger on a student’s academic performance and behavior in school and promotes other positive outcomes [5].

Access to adequate nutrition is a vital support service that contributes to a high quality education. This is accomplished largely through school meal programs – breakfast and lunch meals – which are available to students during the school day. The state’s uneven economic recovery has left many North Carolina’s workers and their families more vulnerable, and food insecurity is a reality for many students and families across the state.

Half of North Carolina’s public school students qualify for free or reduced school meals, which highlights that a significant number of students reside in low- and moderate-income households that face persistent economic challenges. Moreover, one out of every five children in North Carolina attends a high-poverty school [6] – defined as a school in which 75 percent or more of students are eligible for the federal subsidized school lunch program. Among students of color, that number is one in three. With more than 1.5 million students in public schools, that means that many of our schools serve a large number of economically disadvantaged students.

Recognizing the connection between adequate nutrition and student success, many North Carolina schools have taken steps to boost access to school meals. Last school year, more than 750 schools across the state [7] participated in a nation-wide Community Eligibility [8] initiative, which provides school meals to all students free of charge. With nearly 60 percent of eligible schools participating in this initiative, this is promising progress to build upon and expand access to nutrition to more students.

Other opportunities exists that would help ensure that students arrive to class fed and ready to learn. State lawmakers can boost state funding for child nutrition programs, which would allow for more federal dollars to flow to the state for child nutrition. As are result, these additional state and federal dollars would free up local funds that are now used to cover costs related to school meal programs – these dollars could now be directed to the classroom. Furthermore, increasing participation in school breakfast programs offers a promising return on investment. Research shows that children who eat breakfast – closer to class and test-taking time – perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or eat breakfast at home [9].

As we embark upon a new school year, we should consider access to adequate nutrition a core component of a quality education. Greater support at the state level can help make sure that schools have the resources needed to provide a quality education for all students, which includes access to adequate nutrition.