Healthier school food is key to fighting COVID-19 and systemic racism
by Miranda Mlilo, food policy intern, and Chloë Waterman, climate-friendly food program manager
As we mourn the lives of Black people murdered by police, we also grieve for the people of color whose lives have been taken disproportionately by COVID-19. The same structural racism that enables police brutality makes people of color more vulnerable to the pandemic. If Black Americans died of coronavirus at the same rate as white Americans, 16,000 Black people would still be alive today.
Many of the structural inequities created and perpetuated since the founding of this country have led people of color to be harmed first and worst by COVID-19. Income disparity and poverty, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, under-resourced communities, inadequate access to healthcare, disproportionate proximity to pollution, adverse health effects of socioeconomic and political stressors (known as “weathering”), and prevalence of “essential” hourly-waged jobs all explain why people of color are fighting this virus on an uneven playing field. In essence, we are seeing centuries of racism play out in this pandemic just as history repeats itself with the public lynching of George Floyd three weeks ago. Higher prevalence of diet-related conditions like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease among people of color are also key risk factors for COVID-19. Black Americans are 60% more likely to be diabetic, are 20% more likely to die from heart disease, and have a risk of stroke two to three times higher than white Americans. These diseases are among the strongest predictors that an individual infected with the virus will require hospitalization or even die.
These health disparities emerge early in life. For example, Hispanic and Black youth have significantly higher rates of obesity than white children. School meals are the most direct point of intervention to address racial health disparities among children of color living in neighborhoods without accessible healthy food and whose parents may not have the time to scratch-cook meals.
School meals are essential for children of color
Schools serve seven billion meals per year. For many students who rely on free and reduced meals, who are disproportionately students of color, school breakfast and lunch provide half of their caloric intake. Too many children of color rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition in part because discriminatory housing policies such as housing segregation and racist bank lending have pushed people of color into disadvantaged neighborhoods and schools, where lack of resources and political power compounds their lack of access to healthy food. Eight percent of Black Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. Professor of human ecology and Africana studies at Rutgers University Naa Oyo A. Kwate found that an overabundance of unhealthy fast food in Black communities contributes to the problem as well: “Segregation fosters a weak retail climate and a surplus of low-wage labor, both of which make the proliferation of fast food probable.”
Pioneers of our public education system like Horace Mann envisioned education as the “great equalizer”; by the same token, our school food programs have the potential to serve as an equalizer of health. But just as our public education system has failed to erase — and has arguably exacerbated — racial inequity in educational outcomes, our school meal programs have similarly failed to live up to this potential.
The amount of money the federal government provides to cover the cost of school meals (up to $3.50 for lunch and $2.20 for breakfast, including the cost of labor) is wholly insufficient, and many schools — particularly those in low-income communities — lack facilities to prepare fresh meals and are reliant on processed foods. The nutrition guidelines for school meals are catered toward white students (and the dairy industry) by requiring that cow’s milk be offered or served even though between 50 and 95% of people of color are lactose-intolerant according to the National Institutes of Health. An analysis by the public health organization Balanced found that in 20 days of meals served by thirteen of the country’s largest school districts, ground beef was offered 116 times, deli meats 99 times, and pepperoni 84 times. Beef and other red meats are classified as “likely carcinogens” by the World Health Organization, and deli meats and pepperoni are examples of processed meats, which are classified as known carcinogens, in the same category as tobacco. Red and processed meats are linked to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Our school food programs have the potential to serve as an equalizer of health. But just as our public education system has failed to erase — and has arguably exacerbated — racial inequity in educational outcomes, our school meal programs have similarly failed to live up to this potential.
Solutions we can count on
These adverse health outcomes share a common thread. They are all diet-related and can be mitigated with a plant-rich diet — that is, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and low in meat and dairy. Increasing scratch-cooked, plant-based options in schools can help mitigate racial health disparities and set students up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. That is why the NAACP passed a resolution last year supporting a requirement for plant-based options in schools, healthcare facilities, and prisons. Fortunately, schools are starting to move in this direction. New York City Public Schools adopted district-wide Meatless Mondays, and the District of Columbia now requires vegetarian and plant-based options in its schools. Both districts serve majority students of color.
The most recent improvements to nutrition standards came from the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act championed by Michelle Obama in 2011. The Trump Administration has attempted to roll the standards back, for example by allowing flavored milk and higher-sodium meals. Never has it been more urgent to make school meals healthier for the children of color who rely on them. As part of its COVID-19 recovery legislation, Congress should expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and DoD Fresh to ensure students are getting enough produce, and going into next year, increase funding for School Meal Kitchen Equipment Grants to facilitate healthy, scratch-cooked meals long-term.
Aside from the need for improvements in meal quality, we must make school meals free for every student, particularly as families struggle with food insecurity due to the COVID crisis. Implementing free meals for all will ease the administrative burden for school food service programs in the fall and help give them a way out of the massive debt they have incurred.
Even before this crisis, more than three-quarters of school districts were grappling with uncollected student meal debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. Students with debt are often shamed. They can be forced to return their tray at the register, offered a PB&J sandwich, given a wristband or stamp to indicate they are indebted, or even threatened with foster care placement. No student should have to experience this. The solution is universal school meals. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar have proposed a bill that would make school meals free for all students. Beyond ensuring that kids do not go hungry at school, universal meals — coupled with strong nutrition standards and responsible sourcing — will increase attendance, enhance educational outcomes, and be a lifeline to healthy food for millions of students of color who lack healthy food in their homes and neighborhoods.
No student should have to experience this. The solution is universal school meals.
Where the federal government neglects to lead, state and local governments need to step up. Oregon has invested $15 million into farm-to-school programs that give kids access to fresh produce and another $40 million to expand access to meals for low-income students. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s pre-COVID proposed budget included an $80 million investment in school food, including funding to expand plant-based options. After D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed a massive cut to school breakfast and nutrition education in her budget, the D.C. Council, recognizing that the programs are essential to so many families of color in the district, restored the funding.
Philando Castile: An instructive legacy
As we reflect on the Black lives lost to police brutality, premature death from inadequate access to nutritious food and healthcare, and the many other ways racism plagues our society, Philando Castile comes to mind. Castile was fatally shot by police in 2016, one of thousands of Black men senselessly killed in such a manner. He was a cafeteria worker for 14 years, overseeing a cafeteria of 530 kids. After his death, his foundation paid off the school lunch debt of all his students, who otherwise would have been banned from their own graduation for owing money. According to Castile’s mother Valerie, he would often pay for the lunches of students who owed money or couldn’t afford lunch. Last week, Castile’s cousin Louis Hunter gave out 300 free vegan meals to protestors in Minneapolis from the restaurant he owns despite being confronted by armored police.
As we recover from COVID-19 and fight to dismantle systemic racism, we can start with our kids by investing in healthy school food. As Valerie Castile put it, her son “understood that the children are the future leaders of this country, and it was his obligation to take care of them best he could.” Philando Castile stepped in where our government fell short. Congress should honor his legacy, mitigate the racial health disparities that leave Black people so vulnerable to COVID-19, and help nurture the next generation of people of color by ensuring every student has access to nutritious school meals.