Free meals the norm now in Lehigh Valley school districts, but what’s the benefit?

Written by on October 21, 2021

Free meals the norm now in Lehigh Valley school districts, but what’s the benefit?

By Chloe Nouvelle

October 21, 2021

Universal free school meals expanded under a pandemic-era USDA program. Research is mixed on the benefit of free meals on student performance, although there is evidence of improved nutrition, an expert says. Photo | Sarah Boden, WESA

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Universal free school meals have been embraced by school districts in the Lehigh Valley, including Parkland and Northern Lehigh

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The expansion was spurred by a pandemic-era USDA program that allows schools to offer students breakfast and lunch at no cost, regardless of family income.

Karen Bassarab, a senior program officer with the Food Communities and Public Health Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, said the expansion of free school meals isn’t entirely new. She explained that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 allowed school districts to offer universal free meals if a certain number of their student population qualified for free and reduced-price lunch. 

“These programs, the benefit and value of them is, in many ways, it takes away the stigma of identification of students that may be a lower income or on public benefits. Because everyone’s equal, all the kids get a meal,” said Bassarab. 

Bassarab added that there’s mixed research on the impact of school meals on student academic achievement and that there are many other factors that play into a child’s success in school, outside of access to breakfast and lunch.

“These programs are not like this silver bullet to be like, this is going to solve it. But it’s another tool that helps students to be prepared,” said Bassarab.  

That said, Bassarab explained that school meal access does help with children’s nutrition and health. 

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