We all want what is best for our children, especially when it comes to their health. When parents everywhere are working diligently on various childcare responsibilities, it may feel like the work is non-stop and it is a challenge to fit everything into a busy day. Meals are no exception. Children are growing, active, and have smaller stomachs than adults, which means that they need to eat at least three meals and several snacks every day to keep up their energy and stay healthy. While keeping up with this can be hard for parents, there is one major solution that can help on school days: school breakfast and school lunch. This week is National School Lunch Week, the purpose of which is to increase awareness and participation in the school meals program, particularly school lunch. In this column, I will describe some reasons why your children should eat school meals rather than pack lunch from home.

In Crawford County, it is estimated that 40 percent of children participate in the school breakfast program, and 60 percent participate in the school lunch program during the 2020-21 school year. Participation increased during the pandemic because parents everywhere are recognizing the terrific service that is provided by school cafeteria staff. School meals are regulated by local, state, and federal governments, and must follow rigorous food safety, quality, and nutritional guidelines. When more children participate, this helps reduce any stigma that students might face by eating school lunch and drives home the message that school meals are tasty and convenient for everyone. Also, research has demonstrated that school meals promote health, good behavior, well-being, and academic success for students of all ages.

Some parents may be hesitant to participate feel that packing their child’s lunch is an important act of service for their child, and it might seem wrong to skip it. What if their child doesn’t like what’s being offered for lunch at school that day? Parents can be reassured that there are many options to choose from for students across grade levels that meet strict nutritional requirements. At Crawford Central’s elementary schools, students have a choice of three entrees each day, at least one of which is a hot entrée, and middle and high school students have additional choices every day, including sandwiches from the grill, pizzas and salads. Similarly, menus at Conneaut and PENNCREST school districts offer a wide variety to the students every day.

Along with their entrée, students can choose from several kinds of fruits and vegetables each day. To complete a full meal, students must take at least one fruit or vegetable. For elementary and middle school students, they can take up to one fruit serving and two vegetable servings, and high school students can take two servings of fruits and two servings of vegetables. Ice-cold low-fat milk is also included in school breakfast and lunch. School cafeteria staff work very hard to make sure that students get through the lunch line as quickly as possible so that they have time to eat, enjoy, and socialize with their classmates.

For parents of children with special dietary needs, they might be wary to have their child participate in the school meals program because they aren’t sure about the ingredients or the nutritional content. However, every year, food service staff are trained in food safety issues and accommodating students with special dietary needs. Additionally, schools that are contracted with The Nutrition Group, such as Conneaut, Crawford Central, PENNCREST and Bethesda have access to a registered dietitian who works with the food service director to develop a plan for children with special dietary needs.

Some parents may remember the school lunches from their days. Over the last decade the nutritional content of school meals has increased greatly since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. Recent research has revealed that school meals are now healthier on average than meals packed from home. School meals include all the nutrients that students need for the day, including carbohydrates, fiber, proteins and fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. Eating a full meal with all the necessary nutritional components helps children stay full all day. Staying full all day helps children learn and stay focused in class.

There is an even better reason to get breakfast and lunch at school this year, school meals are free for everyone. No paperwork is required, no sign-up is required. School meals are free for every child in the country this year, due to the pandemic and the hardships it has caused for families. Even in non-pandemic years, many schools in Crawford County participate in the Community Eligible Provision, which means that everyone in the community can receive free meals, regardless of family eligibility.

The National School Lunch Program is an important institution that ensures that every child has equal access to healthy meals, and this goal can be achieved more easily when everyone participates. School meals are nutritious, safe and free for all. Taking advantage of this service can help families save time, money and stress, and can build a more sustainable meal program for your child’s school.

Amelia B. Finaret, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Global Health Studies at Allegheny College.

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