a young Black boy puts a fork of broccoli into his mouth
A boy enjoying his very fine public school lunch. (Photo/Amanda Mills-US Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

Stop packing lunches! It makes life better for everyone

When my oldest son started kindergarten four years ago, it was the first year that New York City implemented free universal lunch and breakfast for all students. That meant that for every meal served during the school day, all the kids at his Brooklyn school could get in the cafeteria line and help themselves. No lunch money, no special accounts for low-income children. Free food for all.

It was an important step to improve health and nutrition for students, it reduced the stigma attached to getting free and reduced-priced meals, and it made my daily life so much easier.

Now the federal government has announced that it will extend its pandemic school meal provisions and provide all schoolchildren with free meals during the 2021-22 school year. I’m here to tell you that regardless of your family income and whether or not you have packed lunches for your children in years past, you should have them eat school meals.

It’s good for them. It’s good for society. And all you have to do is nothing. Just sleep in a little longer and don’t make them a lunch in the morning. Here’s why:

It’s nutritious. School lunches have to meet USDA nutrition standards that limit the amount of fat and saturated fat. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 and implemented in 2012, required that schools serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limit high-fat and high-starch food. Studies have found that kids who eat lunch at school are eating more nutritious meals as a result of the law. And for some kids, those meals are the most important nutrition they get all day.

Is the school food perfect? Of course not. School districts operate on limited budgets. Before the pandemic, the federal government reimbursed schools $3.60 per lunch for students who qualified based on their household income. (That’s now been increased to $4.25 per lunch for all students, at least for the coming school year.) My son’s favorite school lunch food was “beef patty,” and every Friday was pizza day.

And I’ll be honest: When Nate started kindergarten, I didn’t let him eat school lunch because I held negative stereotypes about the food. I packed him lunch every day until he stopped eating it and begged me to let him eat from the cafeteria. Once I did, he ate a square meal every day and even served himself carrots and cucumbers from the cafeteria salad bar. And my husband and I were still in charge of his breakfast, dinner and snacks. I was a little more conscious about the nutritional content of those meals to make up for any weaknesses in the school meals. But I felt good about opting in. And that’s because:

The more that families participate in the school lunch program, the better it will be. When more students eat lunch, more money is coming into the system. In previous years, students who didn’t qualify for free and reduced meals supported the lunch program by paying for their lunches. This year, the USDA will reimburse school districts for all lunches, but only for meals that are served. That means that every time your child eats a school meal, your local lunch program will get more money from the federal government. More money means more resources to improve quality.

When public programs have wide participation, they are held in greater respect. Think about Medicare. Or the federal vaccination program. They both have wide public support, and people feel good about participating in them. Imagine if the National School Lunch Program garnered that type of esteem. It might actually get the support and funding it deserves.

What’s more, the stigma against getting free and reduced-price lunches would disappear. That stigma is real; so is lunch debt. I’d prefer a world where school-day nutrition is a public entitlement.

You deserve it! This summer, I took my kids to a playground; unbeknownst to me, it was the site of a summer lunch program where meals were given away free of charge to anyone who wanted one.

When a program staffer offered my kids a meal, I started to decline. We didn’t come for lunch, and we didn’t need one. But my kids were excited about the free food, and the staffer didn’t want to take no for an answer.

So they took the sack lunches, and the playground filled up with other children who came for lunch, too. My kids excitedly dug into their sandwiches and bananas and milk and chatted happily with the other kids as they all ate together. They had been deprived of this simple experience of sharing a meal with other children for so long, and they needed this.

And so do you. After more than a year living through a pandemic, being locked down with your children, enduring remote schooling, telecommuting and all the stresses and sacrifices of this year, take this one thing off your plate. Don’t pack lunch in the morning.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.