Children who are hungry have a hard time learning regardless of their innate ability or their desire to keep up with their classmates. That’s why the Baltimore City school system’s announcement that, starting this month, every student in the city will receive free breakfast and lunch at school whatever their family’s income is so significant. It means that all children will now have equal access to healthy, nutritious meals that help them stay alert, energetic and ready to reach their full potential in the classroom. This is a development that can only be good for the city and all its young people.
Educators have long known that healthy children learn better and that hunger is one of the greatest barriers to achievement in school. The federal government established the National School Lunch Program in 1946 in order to help school districts provide free or reduced-priced meals to children from low-income families who couldn’t afford to buy them. Until last year, however, there were strict eligibility requirements for families seeking such aid and not all children, even those in high-poverty jurisdictions like Baltimore, qualified for help.
This year the city is taking advantage of a federal program that allows it to offer free schools meals to every child in the system, including those whose parents could afford to buy them. Given that 84 percent of Baltimore school children already qualified for the free or reduced-price meal program, the latter group has always represented a relatively small fraction of parents. But while on paper they may seem to be better off than the majority of their peers — especially those living in some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods — the reality is that their numbers also include large numbers of working poor who still struggle to put food on the table. Now there will be no stigma attached to receiving this aid, nor will families whose income fluctuates around the cut-off for assistance have to worry. It will simply be a given that students will have stomachs full of nutritious food.
The importance of that is incontrovertible. A recent study of the impact of nutrition on the academic performance of school-age children at St. John’s University in New York, for example, found that having a healthy, balanced diet improves brain capacity, maximizes cognitive capabilities and improves children’s academic performance, while irregular, unhealthy or junk food diets actually decrease children’s ability to learn by limiting the amount of information to the brain.
The researchers concluded that food insufficiency has a major effect on student achievement levels and called on communities to afford every child a chance to succeed academically. Just because a child comes from a poor neighborhood, they argued, that shouldn’t lessen his or her opportunity to benefit from an education.
That’s increasingly important now that schools in Baltimore have adopted the more rigorous academic standards of the Common Core. The new standards, and the curriculum developed to implement them, aim to teach children to think critically and creatively about solving problems rather than simply to memorize and regurgitate their teachers’ lessons. That will require a level of intellectual engagement, energy and attentiveness that will be difficult for children to reach if their stomachs are constantly growling in class.
Meanwhile, parents who can afford to buy their children’s school lunches may now devote those funds to other educational purposes, such as college savings plans, tutoring programs, summer camp experiences or music lessons. Anything that enhances a child’s academic performance can be invaluable to their future success in life. For the few parents who really don’t need the help, we have a suggestion: Donate a portion of the money saved on school meals to the local PTA or to one of the many private foundations set up by individual schools to support their extracurricular activities.
Free school meals lift one of the last major barriers to every child having an equal shot at success in school. Now more than ever no child should be left behind because, through no fault of their own, they arrive in the classroom on an empty stomach.