Guest View: School lunches an important foundation in education

Meghan Puster, Senior Nursing BSN Student

Barriers to accessing nutritious school lunches must be addressed. The importance of school lunches became apparent during the transition to online learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. School lunches serve as the foundation for students’ physical development, cognition, and behavior. Receiving a quality meal should be effortless and appealing to guarantee a prosperous day of learning.

Students desire to play an active role in their entrée selection. They should be given opportunities to be assertive and make healthy choices. Health conscious patterns established during childhood tend to carry forward into adulthood. Students should be given a choice for their fruit and vegetable selections and a chance to experiment with salad toppings and seasonings. All food should be locally sourced so children can build relationships and connections in the community.

Adequate time to consume lunch must be provided especially when first introduced to nutritious options that are not necessarily accessible at home. There are currently no national or Ohio laws regarding the amount of time students are given for lunch. The CDC recommends providing 30-minute lunch breaks with 20 minutes of uninterrupted time seated. The time spent waiting in line for lunch, socializing, and cleaning up after lunch must be investigated.

Many students are returning to the classroom, so it is essential to consider the condition of the cafeteria environment. This environment should be quiet and comfortable. Coming together for lunch establishes a sense of unity. Round tables, booths, and age appropriate murals promoting school pride, nutrition, and health should be emphasized. Marketing strategies previously used by fast food companies can be implemented in the lunchroom. The school mascot and influential members of the school and community can serve as positive role models.

Students should always be encouraged to participate in the designated school lunch program. 

Many students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. Students that participate in school lunch consume more milk, fruits, vegetables, and have better intake of calcium and fiber than nonparticipants. School districts should strive to limit outside distractions by keeping students in the school building for lunch and limiting their access to fast food establishments. Recess or recreational periods should be provided prior to lunch breaks to promote a strong appetite.

Adequate access to water at school improves cognitive function and overall hydration. Students should always be allowed to carry water bottles and be given chances to visit water fountains. Water fountains must be clean and in good repair. Hydration stations need to be distributed throughout the school building.

A healthy, balanced, nutritious meal is primary prevention for illness and disease. We owe children ideal opportunities to access quality meals because the cafeteria is simply an extension to the classroom. Support local farmers, food banks, and schools because our youth depends on responsible authority to lay the groundwork for a healthy future.

Meghan Puster of Tallmadge is a senior nursing BSN student at Youngstown State University.