By virtue of the program being a federal one, most of the big policy changes affecting school lunch happen at the federal level. Big, sweeping changes to the National School Lunch Program came about as a result of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. This legislation was backed by former First Lady Michelle Obama and was hotly debate. So much so that the New York Times covered some of the gory bits here.
But what about state level policy?
My home state of Nevada is often the best at being the worst. During the most recent recession we had the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates in the entire country at one point in time. We have historically been at the bottom of the barrel for child welfare indicators and our education system has received equally terrible ratings. We’ve bounced back on some of those economic indicators, and Northern Nevada is especially booming right now, but our child wellness and education ratings remain pretty abysmal. According to the Annie E Casey Foundation, which conducts and annual survey and corresponding report on child well-being, in 2017 Nevada ranked:
47th overall for child well-being
49th in education
40th in economic well being
Did we improve from 2016? Nope, our rankings were exactly the same in 2016 and 2017. What about 2015, did we improve compared to where we were two years ago? A little bit. We were 50th in education and 46th in economic well-being but our overall rank stayed the same at 47th compared to all states in the national. Pretty darn depressing.
We do however, have a recent success story from our state that gives cause for celebration and show how important state policy can be. In additional to being at the bottom of the barrel for child wellness and education rankings, Nevada had historically had some of the lowest school breakfast participation rates in the country, despite a significant high needs population. How does that link to education you may ask? I could go into all sorts of boring research and infographics but to really break it down, hungry kids can’t learn. Think about the last time you were really, really hungry. Like “I got stuck in a four hour long meeting after skipping lunch” hungry. Could you think about anything but food? I couldn’t. It’s the same principle with kids. If you didn’t eat breakfast because there wasn’t time, or you weren’t hungry then but after an hour long bus ride you are starving, or there wasn’t food at home by the time you can’t think and learn.
So what did we do as a state to address low breakfast participation? On June 12, 2015 Nevada Senate Bill 503 was signed into law by Governor Brian Sandoval.
It required all schools with greater than 70% free or reduced price meal eligibility (a measure of how many kids come from low income households) to serve breakfast AFTER the start of the school day. Kids don’t have to take a meal (and it’s against federal law to make anyone take a breakfast) but at the schools included in the mandate, breakfast must be offered to all students after the school day starts.
Why is serving breakfast after the bell so important? Like so many things, the devil in school breakfast participation is in the details. Did your bus arrive late? Did a parent drop off late? Do you not have enough time to get off the bus, walk all across school campus to the cafeteria and then walk back to the classroom before the bell rigs? These are all really common reasons why students who qualify for a free breakfast and have breakfast offered at school weren’t participating. So what does that look like in a school?
There are a lot of different models. Some schools serve breakfast in the classroom while students are doing warm up exercises or while teachers check student’s homework. Some schools with older students like middle or high school students will serve breakfast after first period, which also lines up much better with the circadian rhythm of a teenager.
In Nevada, this mandate also came with $2 million in grants funds to provide schools with the labor and equipment to help make the mandate a reality.
So, what was the result?
Dramatic gains in school breakfast participation and a $13 million return in federal funds in that $2 million investment of state funds. In fact, for the 2015-2016 school year, the first school year the legislation was in effect, Nevada had the greatest statewide increase in school breakfast participation compared to all states in the nation moving from 41st to 25th. The next school year, 2016-2017 also saw substantial gains and brought Nevada’s school breakfast participation to 7th in the nation, the biggest jump for any state.
I think this is a great example of the power of good state nutrition policy. Nevada is a state with so many kids in need, kids that don’t have enough food at home and one single state bill took us from 41st in the nation to 7th!
Of course, I would be remiss without also recognizing all the amazing efforts the school nutrition staff that made this happen, especially in Clark County (Las Vegas). Their passion for doing right for kids is really remarkable and they are really the unsung heroes of this huge leap forward for our state.
So when you eat breakfast next, think about how that powers your brain and what a free, easily available breakfast can do for our state’s neediest kids.