Opinion

With Threats Looming to Both Food Stamps and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Providing Students With Healthy Meals Never More Critical

By Kristin Groos Richmond and Cynthia Muller | February 18, 2020

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Children who lack access to healthy food options — at home and in schools — have a more difficult time learning. Kids who are hungry or not well nourished are more likely to have trouble focusing, exhibit behavioral problems and struggle academically. We see this in classrooms and schools across the country, and for students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities, going hungry compounds the challenges they already face.

For many children, federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the National School Lunch Program are the only ways to access a healthy meal, whether breakfast, lunch or even supper. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 1 in 6 children face food insecurity. For students who live in neighborhoods where access to fresh, nutritious food is limited, the issue is compounded: 21.2 percent of black households and 16.2 percent of Hispanic households are food insecure. The evidence is clear; this is a racial equity issue.

Investments are crucial to fill hungry tummies not only so that students can learn but also to break the cycle of inequity that children, their families and their communities systemically face.

Access is just one piece of the puzzle. The quality of the food that children receive in schools is just as important. Yet we’re taking steps backward when it comes to bridging access and quality. Last month, the USDA proposed a new set of rules that could impact the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which requires schools to increase offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Coupled with proposed cuts to federal meal programs like SNAP, students could lose access to healthy meals.

Without government assistance to provide healthy meals, companies and organizations that promote access to locally sourced, healthy and affordable foods can fill the void and help ensure that all children have equitable opportunity. They are a key ingredient to ensure that we bring quality to the table.

Revolution Foods is one such company, working to transform school meals, students’ dining experience and their overall relationship with food. By its providing 2 million freshly prepared, healthy meals every week to 2,500 schools and community sites across the United States, children are healthier, they’re learning more, and they’re enjoying more healthy meals in schools. That means breakfasts like strawberry and chia yogurt parfaits and whole-grain buttermilk pancakes, and lunches of Southwest veggie wraps and Mongolian beef with not-so-fried rice.

Building lifelong healthy eaters is the core of Revolution Foods’ mission, and we do everything we can to make sure that every school and every student has access to healthy, delicious meals. We partner with districts and school leaders to design the right meal platform that fits their budgets and to assist them in utilizing grants to purchase much-needed kitchen equipment.

We work directly with students and conduct monthly chef visits, taste tests and surveys to gauge the satisfaction level of their meals. We acknowledge and respect the communities that we serve by listening to feedback directly from our consumers and designing culturally relevant meals that they enjoy. For example, our students in New Orleans enjoy chicken gumbo and cornbread, while students in Southern California are served mild green chile and cheese tamales.

Today, the seeds that we are sowing in schools and communities are yielding benefits. Since 2010, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) has been an investor in Revolution Foods, investing more than $6 million in growth capital and equity, first providing working capital and then seed capital to help the company grow. Through our partnership, we’ve seen how strategic investment can be both sustainable and impactful.

A recent impact study by KKS Advisors, commissioned by the Kellogg Foundation, shows that schools that served Revolution Foods saw a 13 percent improvement in English Language Arts (ELA) results versus similar control schools over a four-year study period. Another study, by UC Berkeley, echoes the positive correlation between providing healthy school meals and academic achievement.

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And the financial benefits are also there through an increase in the number of quality jobs in the community. Many of Revolution Foods’ 1,500 employees are members of the at-risk communities in which they work; they are parents and relatives of the students we serve every day. Providing employment opportunities allows many of our employees to have access to traditional financial services for the first time. By Revolution Foods’ partnering with Community Financial Resources, an organization providing access to financial tools for low-income communities, its employees have been able to open bank accounts and/or leverage prepaid debit cards to receive their salary, encouraging savings habits. Investing in local food production, procurement and access is a strategic approach to accelerate economic growth.

The impact of a school meal goes beyond the cafeteria. It can have a ripple effect throughout a community. Revolution Foods works to promote family nutrition by equipping teachers, students and parents with the tools and resources to continue positive nutrition education that bridges the gap between school and home. We work directly with partners such as FoodCorps to drive understanding and consumption of healthy food by conducting experiential learning programs in the classroom. And we extend this reach into the communities we serve through a partnership with Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation that enables our mobile kitchen classroom to host family dinner events, giving children and parents the opportunity to taste new foods and learn how to make healthy, delicious meals at home.

A school meal is more than the excitement of pizza day; it’s a means of filling what may otherwise be empty tummies. It’s an opportunity to nourish young minds. It is, however, difficult to change. Kids are used to tater tots and french fries. Schools and districts are used to the traditional system and processes of food service for students. But if we don’t work to evoke change — change the way we think of and interact with food — then who will?

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Local governments, federal officials, policymakers, schools, businesses, philanthropies, community leaders, parents and meal providers all have a responsibility to make sure every child has access to healthy meals. Programs like SNAP and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act have made a difference in the lives of students. As we continue to advocate for such programs that strive to keep children healthy and learning, we must make sure that our school meals address quantity and quality for all kids.

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