Food for Thought: How Schools Can Play a Role in Children’s Health

This is the second post in a two-part blog series. Read part one.

Carinne Deeds, Policy Associate

Food insecurity and childhood hunger can play a critical role in students’ learning. Although federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have been shown to have a significant, positive effect on the overall health of children, they are are not enough on their own to alleviate the damage to learning done by childhood food insecurity. Looking beyond federal programs, what role can schools play in ensuring that students have the supports they need to succeed in the classroom?

K-12 schools around the country offer a number of formal and informal services to address the needs of food-insecure students.

School Food Pantries

School food pantries provide meals to income-eligible students either at school campuses or through mobile distribution programs. Last year, there were over 1,100 food pantries on school grounds in the United States. The Feeding America School Pantry Program – comprised of both permanent and mobile food pantries – currently serves over 100,000 children across the nation.

Backpack Programs

Programs like the Feeding America Backpack Program, though partnerships with food banks and schools around the country, ensure that food-insecure children have food not just while in school, but on the weekends as well. Every Friday, students are sent home with a backpack full of nutritious, easy-to-prepare foods to last the entire weekend. Some programs even utilize libraries as the backpack distribution site, which provides the added bonus of increasing library program participation.

Featuring the School Backpack Program in Mankato, Minnesota.

Afterschool Meal Programs

Federal funding for afterschool meal programs comes from two sources: the NSLP (discussed above) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). CACFP, administered through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), allows for schools, local government agencies, and nonprofit afterschool programs to provide adequately nutritious meals to children 18 and under afterschool during the school year. To qualify, a site must be located in a “low-income area” in which at least half of the children in the local K-12 school(s) qualify for free or reduced price meals. According to the USDA: “[These programs] draw children and teenagers into constructive activities that are safe, fun, and filled with opportunities for learning. The food gives them the nutrition they need to learn and grow.”

Summer Nutrition Programs

The NSLP and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) both provide federal funds to serve meals to income-eligible students outside of the typical school year – a critical gap to fill, as most school food programs are only active when school is in session. Like CACFP, SFSP programs must provide nutritionally adequate meals according to USDA’s specified standards. This SFSP fact sheet describes the roles of each entity involved in the SFSP – state agencies, sponsors, and program sites.

Featuring the Summer Meals Program in Pasco County, Florida.


Though schools are increasingly playing a role in children’s health, these programs are not a silver bullet. Implementation and outcomes of these programs vary across the nation, and there is currently no systematic method of identifying students in need and addressing those specific needs appropriately. Specifically, the following challenges may limit schools’ ability to fully address the food-related barriers students face to academic development:

  • There is still a lack of knowledge about the different types and levels of food insecurity, and, most importantly, the root causes of that insecurity. Not knowing the exact cause of food insecurity in each child and each school’s situation makes it difficult for schools to adequately address the primary needs of their population.
  • Many school-based programs rely on children or parents to actually report their need in order to receive services. In these instances, children may not even be aware of the needs they have, as overt conversations about a family’s food security status likely do not take place at home. Although a student will undoubtedly know when he or she is hungry, the need to identify as “in need” of a program’s services may understandably not fully register with students.
  • The fear of being stigmatized for needing services is prevalent across the nation. Many programs attempt to alleviate this fear by dissociating food programs from those “in need.” For example, backpack programs send students home with food in backpacks rather than distributing paper bags of food to ensure that those students do not stand out. Similarly, many schools are starting to distribute free meals (through the NSLP) to all students, not just those who are eligible for the federal program.

Despite the limits schools face in addressing food insecurity, programs like those mentioned above can help provide students with the basic nutrition they need to be happier, healthier, and more productive students. Non-academic hardships should not be a barrier to a child’s academic growth. Youth-serving agencies in any capacity have the opportunity to make sure that students are coming to school healthy and ready to learn – not just to improve their academic achievement, but because no child should be deprived of the chance to reach his or her full potential. In the words of No Kid Hungry CEO Billy Shore, “Solving poverty is complex. Feeding children is not.” 

Helpful tools:

  1. Looking for a school food pantry or backpack program? Use Feeding America’sFood Bank Locator to find out what kind of programs exist in your community.
  2. Check out the USDA’s summer food finder:
  3. This year, the USDA is hosting a webinar series on SFSP, including how to improve, promote, or sponsor a program.
  4. Read about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, an initiative with bipartisan support, which greatly broadened the reach of many federal child nutrition programs:

Carinee Deeds is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.