Parents need help paying for food, not preparing it

As a mom of school-age kids, I’ve had a lot of conversations about and first-hand experience with the challenges created by the recent school closings and the transition to distance learning.  

What I don’t hear are complaints about the challenge of making kids a meal when they’re hungry. In fact, it seems like people are cooking at home now more than ever. Parents are even cooking with their kids, to which the smiling posts on social media testify daily. 

This isn’t just my observation. A recent Morning Consult poll asked parents how concerned they are about a variety of issues. Parents ranked “making up for free or reduced meals at home” lowest among the listed concerns, with less than a quarter responding that they were “very concerned.”

That doesn’t mean people aren’t facing financial difficulties. It doesn’t negate the fact that plenty of families were already living at or under the poverty line before coronavirus closed schools or that coronavirus has worsened their already precarious circumstances. But financial need is much different than the supposed difficulties parents might have making a sandwich or buying a bag of apples at the grocery store.

Policymakers should recognize this distinction. While people may indeed need help being able to purchase food, they don’t need help preparing simple meals, and should be involved in their children’s nutrition decisions.

Parental involvement is priceless

The studies on child health bear this out. Multiple studies show that greater parental involvement in a child’s nutrition — along with regular bedtime routines and limited screen access — result in healthier kids.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that children who are taught to cook grow up to eat fewer fast food meals and are more likely to cook meals at home that contain healthy vegetables. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association both recommend home cooking as a way to help kids adopt healthier eating habits. 

This isn’t a vacation: I’m a survivor of domestic abuse. Quarantine with my father would have been hell.

Yet, the National School Lunch Program — pre- and post-school closings — pushes parents out of the equation. In 2018, schools across the country served nearly 5 billion lunches to almost 30 million students. Other meals included a full breakfast to nearly 15 million students, and after-school snacks and suppers to millions more. Many schools also manage summer feeding programs, and programs designed to provide food to children on weekends, holidays, and during school breaks. And in an effort to reduce stigma, in areas where a large percentage of students receive free and reduced-priced school means, all children are provided school meals — not just poor children.

Department of Education employees give lunch and breakfast to residents in Paterson, New Jersey, in March 2020.
Department of Education employees give lunch and breakfast to residents in Paterson, New Jersey, in March 2020.

Along with the program’s expansion, there’s been reduced food quality as well as mismanagementimproper payments, and many opportunities for fraud — common issues for large federal programs. The school lunch program is nearly impervious to reform, despite many attempts, and is ridiculed by students who now routinely throw out entire trays of food rather than eat what’s offered. This has created a serious food waste problem

And now, coronavirus has forced yet another expansion of the program into the emergency management arena as many schools continue to feed students despite school closures. 

Bring back family meal prep

This hasn’t been easy on schools. Some schools have had to temporarily end or reduce meal distribution to families in need because of food service workers being exposed to coronavirus. One school food service director in Colorado recently told NPR that school lunch staff are now working as first responders

There’s a better way. In times of a national emergency, schools should be allowed to close for good. To help families in need, emergency support can be provided through increases to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and other programs. 

This will help children by providing financial support — not premade meals — to parents, who can then shop for the ingredients and prepare the food their children prefer. And it will better protect communities by preventing the spread of a contagious disease among untrained cafeteria personnel.

Deciding what your kid eats shouldn’t be a luxury for the rich. Parents should be in charge of feeding their kids — no matter their financial status. Policymakers should detangle schools and food distribution to needy families for good. This is simply a better, safer, and more respectful means of helping those in need while dropping all the pretense that poor families are incapable of making meals for their families.  

Let parents feed kids and help them to do so if needed. Let schools focus on education. During good and bad times, that’s the best and healthiest course for kids. 

Julie Gunlock is the director of the Center for Progress and Innovation at Independent Women’s Forum. Follow her on Twitter: @JGunlock

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School lunches: Kids will be healthier, happier with meals from home