Blog | September 7, 2021

New State Laws Provide More Kids with Healthy Meals

Historic expansions to school meals prioritize childhood nutrition

This year, state legislators across the country faced many difficult decisions about how to prioritize funding across competing policy priorities while also responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these challenging circumstances, Mission: Readiness is encouraged that many states chose to prioritize childhood nutrition by taking historic action to increase access to healthy school meals.

In July, California became the first state in the country to offer free school meals to all K-12 students. The governor signed a budget that would increase state meal reimbursements by $54 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, and then includes $650 million in ongoing funding beginning in 2022-2023. The budget also provided $15 million in ongoing funding for meals served in child care and early education programs. Senator Nancy Skinner originally led the effort to include this funding in the budget. You can learn more about California’s budget and the role Council for a Strong America members played in supporting its passage here.

Mission: Readiness members have long supported efforts to increase access to healthy school meals. Childhood obesity is a major obstacle for young people who wish to one day serve in the military. Currently, one-in-three young people are too overweight or obese to serve in the military, and research shows that children as young as age 2 are experiencing increasing obesity rates. One of the best ways to address these alarming trends is to ensure that young people have consistent access to nutritious meals when they are at school.

Maine also enacted a law this summer that would provide free school meals to K-12 students. This proposal was originally introduced as a bill by Senate President Troy Jackson and Assistant Senate Republican Leader Matt Pouliot, a former Chair of the Maine Children’s Caucus. The legislature then rolled the bill into the final budget and the governor signed it into law. Maine will begin providing free school meals starting in the 2022-2023 school year.

Many other states have begun taking other steps to increase children’s access to fresh and nutritious foods at school. For example, some states have implemented “breakfast after the bell” programs that provide students with healthy breakfasts once the school day has started. These programs can address some of the shortcomings of traditional school breakfast programs, which can often be difficult for students to access due to transportation issues and stigma. They also provide students with access to an additional healthy meal during the day and are better able to concentrate on their school work. The Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill in 2020 implementing a breakfast after the bell program in low-income schools, and many other states have established similar laws.

Mission: Readiness is hopeful that a new federal Child Nutrition Reauthorization will make critical improvements to help ensure that children have access to the healthy meals that they need. But, as these state-level policy victories demonstrate, state legislatures can build upon the National School Lunch Program to further strengthen access. Healthy school meals provide a strong nutritional foundation for kids and can help mitigate childhood obesity, which is critically important for our nation’s public health and national security.

If you would like to learn more about Mission: Readiness’ nutrition policy priorities, click here.