EDITORIAL: Fortify students' nutritional needs in school

Sep. 25—One of the lessons school administrators learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that eligibility standards for free school breakfasts and lunches don't quite meet the actual need.

For two years during the pandemic, the federal government expanded eligibility standards to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students. In Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Education, the number of kids who ate meals at school rose by 16%, especially for breakfast.

The federal waivers that eliminated the financial eligibility guidelines expired at the end of June, raising the prospects that thousands of kids no longer would have access to nutritious meals during the day. That has implications for education because hungry students are distracted students, and for the kids' health.

In August, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state would use $21.5 million in leftover federal pandemic funds to provide universal free breakfasts to any of Pennsylvania's 1.7 million public and private school students who want them. The program will run from Oct. 1 through the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Lindsey Williams and Rep. Emily Kinkead, both Allegheny County Democrats, advocate permanently providing free breakfasts and lunches for all Pennsylvania school students. Philadelphia schools already do so under federal authority because of the city's high poverty rate.

The legislators want to establish a permanent $275 million fund to cover universal access to meals at school, citing research showing that school-provided meals boost kids' healthy food intake, decrease childhood obesity and support better learning outcomes.

According to the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania, about 14% of the state's school-age children regularly experience food insecurity. Lawmakers should ensure that as many Pennsylvania students as possible have unfettered access to the nutrition that they need to be healthy, to grow and the learn.