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Nutrition Programs

Access to nutritious meals is key to ensuring the health and well-being of all students.
Kids in cafeteria NEA
ESPs are crucial to helping kids grow up healthy.

All students deserve regular, healthy meals so they can learn, grow, and succeed with their peers.

We need to take a holistic approach to guaranteeing all children, regardless of economic status or background, get the nutrition they need. This includes:

  • Providing school meals for all
  • protecting the nutrition gains won through the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act
  • strengthening SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • enacting laws to prevent lunch shaming
  • reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act
  • making training accessible to more school cafeteria workers.

Together, these policies will ensure that students can access the food they need, when they need it–and focus on learning, not hunger.

Food is a need, not a want, and if we want kids to be able to concentrate and grow and be healthy and happy, we must see to it that they are fed. –Shan Lighty, middle school nutrition manager, Virginia

Four education support professionals with school lunches
Illinois ESPs make sure no child went hungry during the COVID-19 school closures.

Why Good Nutrition Matters for Students

Ready to advocate for good nutrition for students? Here's what you need to know.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both emphasize the importance of good nutrition in children when it comes to performing well in school.

  1. Missing meals and experiencing hunger impair children’s development and achievement. Studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry document the negative effects of hunger on children’s academic performance and behavior in school. Hungry children have lower math scores, and are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss school entirely.
  2. Eating breakfast at school helps children perform better. Studies published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show that academic achievement among students who eat school breakfasts tends to rise, especially in math. 
  3. Students who eat breakfast at school have better attendance records and exhibit fewer behavior problems. In studies of school breakfast programs in Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, scientists have found that students who eat breakfast at school have better attendance records, are less likely to be tardy, and exhibit fewer behavioral and psychological problems. Schools report that offering all students free breakfast improves behavior and increases attentiveness.
  4. Obesity is a major — and growing — problem among American children. The rate of obesity among U.S. children has tripled in the past 30 years. Today, one in five American children is obese, which increases their risk of lifelong health problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Obesity is thought to be a product of several interacting factors, including genetic susceptibility, behavior (diet and level of physical activity), and environment (home, school, and community).
  5. To be effective, nutrition standards must encompass all food sold in schools. While school meals must meet federal nutrition standards, foods sold individually outside meal programs, like those available in vending machines, are not required to meet comparable nutrition standards. Thus, students can purchase soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, salty snacks, candy, and high-fat baked goods throughout the school day. National nutrition standards must be established for all foods sold on the school campus throughout the day.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.