The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed long-standing crises in our country, including food insecurity, racial inequity, and processed-food-related diseases. This convergence has uncovered stark truths about American society, systemic racism, and what we value as a country. As advocates for healthy food and food justice, we believe that it’s time to make a bold national commitment to food security and children’s health in America by extending universal access to school meals to all students. We must do it now.
We can decide who we are and how we want to show up in this moment. While COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 177,000, and disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities, we face another unprecedented pandemic: hunger and food insecurity in America. Many unemployment benefits for more than 30 million Americans expired on July 31. The economic uncertainty means hunger and food insecurity will mushroom even as the pandemic continues. While people of all backgrounds are impacted, the food insecurity crisis hits BIPOC communities the hardest. Recent data from the Census Bureau found that “29% of Black households and 24% of Hispanic households report that children were not eating enough, compared with 9% of white households.” With the U.S. economy at its weakest in recent history, supporting nutritious food access for all Americans and communities in need is paramount.
As a diversity and inclusion specialist and an integrative pediatric doctor, we know that our current food system exploits BIPOC communities. Like generational racism, food system racism is handed down through restricted access to healthy food, targeting of fast-food restaurants, and unhealthy food marketing to BIPOC children. A recent study found that Black children see twice as many ads for sugary drinks than white children, and that sugary drink brands disproportionately market to the Latinx community. Latinx and Black children have the fastest rise of diseases related to inequitable real food access, and it’s exactly these kinds of diseases—diabetes, obesity, and hypertension—that make patients more likely to die of COVID-19. It’s also hard for hungry kids to learn. The impacts of food insecurity quickly spiral beyond educational outcomes to hurt whole child health, job performance, and economic advancement.
Chronic health conditions in children have doubled since the 1990s. Reducing added sugar has been proven to improve the metabolic health of children quickly—within days—which puts them at lower risk for COVID-19 complications and gives them a better chance at a higher quality of life. The Eat Real certification and advisory process, which we work on, partners with school districts to create more nutritious meals for kids. Eat Real provides schools with nutrition and sustainability data, guidance on how to create healthier meals, and support to work with current suppliers and engage new ones.
Through our work, we’re helping schools make these changes. The Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Northern California, for instance, stopped serving its students more than 10 pounds of added sugar per student per year. It removed hidden sugars in processed foods by swapping orange juice with fresh-cut local oranges, replacing sugary chocolate milk with unflavored milk, and switching parfaits with added sugar to yogurt with delicious fruit.
Eat Real expanded its program from 51 to 237 schools in one year and created a COVID-19 relief program network of 2,067 schools. And we must act more broadly. Good nutrition is one of the key steps—after washing hands, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing—to help optimize the immune system and fight against COVID-19.
This is important because children are not immune from COVID-19. The Academy of Pediatrics reported that in the last two weeks of July, 97,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 338,000 kids have tested positive since the pandemic began. In California, the AAP reports that more than 42,000 children have tested positive. Therefore, increasing access to good nutrition for families will have a significant return on investment to address the pandemic and also support long-term health.
Our schools are critically important in the fight against hunger and the fight for good food for children. Even as digital learning occurs, school systems are still providing meals. We need systemic change at the structural level to increase food access and better nutrition at schools by providing free school meals to all students.
This school year begins during an exceptionally difficult time for so many. We are socially isolated, physically distanced, and afraid of getting sick. The Administration and Congress should act now to support the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act, which was introduced by Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor. The legislation would support free meals for all starting this school year to help protect the next generation. Without it, essential school food meal programs face bankruptcy and closure next year. Not acting means more heartbreak for school and families, especially BIPOC communities.
It’s up to all of us to do the systems change work that’s so urgent and overdue for the planet and children’s health. If we back scalable, innovative solutions like Eat Real that transform school meals, we can give our kids the best chance for a healthier tomorrow. As inequity expands, COVID-19 continues, and climate-induced fires flame, it’s clear that we must do all we can to protect our kids. We should start with universal real, nourishing, and sustainable food for our students.
Tesha McCord Poe is the founder and CEO of Joy-Raising, a consultancy which helps nonprofits with challenges regarding fundraising and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is also a member of the Eat Real board.
Dr. Alan Greene is a renowned pediatrician and the founder of Dr. Greene.com. He practices at Private Medical in Silicon Valley, is an adjunct clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, and serves on the Eat Real board.