Food is Medicine: Why Community Eligibility is a Prescription for Hunger-Free Schools

As pediatricians we often say one of the best prescriptions we can write is for food. We know food is medicine. Ensuring that children of all ages have enough healthy food to eat every day is essential for them to have the best opportunity for a healthy, productive future.

We know Community eligibility fills that prescription for food every day by ensuring communities serving low income children have the opportunity to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students while also eliminating the administrative burden of screening and verifying large numbers of individual applications. Therefore Children’s HealthWatch, a network of pediatricians and public health researchers, supports Community Eligibility, a key provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Community eligibility is already in place in several major cities, including Boston.  We urge school districts to notify their state agencies before August 31, 2014 if they wish to opt in for the 2014-15 school year.

An extensive body of scientific evidence, including research from Children’s HealthWatch, shows that chronic undernutrition among children ages 0-4 years harms their cognitive and physical development during this critical period of rapid brain and body growth, actually changing the fundamental neurological architecture of the brain and central nervous system. In fact, brain structure is most vulnerable to nutritional harm early in development, but brain function is sensitive to the quality and quantity of foods consumed throughout one’s lifespan, including the school years of childhood.  The brain requires high energy consumption and cannot store energy.  As anyone knows from their own experience, even well-nourished adults, missing a meal can make one sluggish, irritable, and struggle to ‘think straight.’  Imagine this as your daily reality.

Though we are focused on the first four years of life, we know that children live within the context of their families and when families struggle to provide enough food, everyone in the family is affected.  Undernourished or hungry children are not well prepared for school, find it difficult to concentrate, and are more likely to behave in ways that disrupt the learning environment and make learning more difficult for others as well. In fact, school-age children who experience undernutrition cannot learn as much, as fast, or as well, and consequently do more poorly in school and have lower academic achievement. Research has shown that participation in the School Breakfast Program improved elementary school children’s test scores as well as their tardiness and absence rates. Learning is a cumulative activity; if a child misses school frequently, s/he could miss a fundamental building block concept that will make further learning in that subject very challenging.  So school meals provide both the nutrition for optimizing brain function as well as a way to bring children into the school regularly and on-time.

Leveraging the perspective of pediatricians and health scientists, our research is designed to improve children’s opportunities for healthy, successful lives by informing public policy and practice. Community Eligibility fits this description, providing students with seamless access to healthy meals, reduces schools’ administrative burdens, and eliminates stigma often associated with verifying eligibility for free/reduced price school meals.  We urge school districts to fill the food as medicine prescriptions for ALL their students to ensure they have a healthy diet and are ready to learn.

Click here to read the Children’s HealthWatch Community Eligibility policy statement.