Many public schools are building momentum for healthy school meals nationwide. School meals are critical to a student’s health and well-being, especially for low-income students. Research shows that school meals help reduce obesity rates, overall poor health, and food insecurity, and are associated with the improvement of grades and standardized test scores.

This topic has been a part of a larger conversation in communities and government. The Biden administration says it is committed to ending hunger in the United States by 2030, making healthy school meals available, and supporting schools that pioneer new ways to improve nutritional quality.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools offered free lunch all year round through pandemic-era federal waivers. Now, many schools are reverting back to parents filling out applications to qualify for free or reduced lunch, which can cause a financial strain for economically disadvantaged families.

Recently, schools nationwide joined in on National School Lunch Week from, celebrating the critical role that school lunches play in providing children with the nutrition they need to learn and thrive.

The Defender spoke with Dr. Jessiica Howell, Ph.D., director of Child Nutrition for YES Prep Public Schools, about making nutrition a priority at school and in the home.

Dr. Jessiica Howell

Defender: What are your responsibilities as director of Child Nutrition at YES Prep?

Jessiica Howell: As a child nutrition director, I basically say I have 18,000 kids that I have to feed. We are responsible for making sure that the children are fed when they are on school property each day. Making sure what we are feeding them is in line with the USDA’s regulations as well as the state’s regulations. Making sure the parents understand those roles, making sure any allergies that students may have are also notated and accommodated for with medical statements.

Defender: Many schools are building off lessons learned during the pandemic when waivers allowed schools to serve free meals to all. Now, most states are reverting back to pre-pandemic operations. How has that impacted families and children?

Howell: We as child nutrition professionals have been bracing for this as the pandemic is starting to wane a bit. We knew that in the beginning of last year we had to start making some strides with the federal government so that all states can continue these flexibilities. I went to Washington in March to be a part of a Texas delegation to advocate to get these waivers in. That particular bill didn’t pass at the time. We did get another senator who put another bill on the table for the Keep the Kids Fed Act. And that’s what did pass.

The difference was that it didn’t allow all students to continue to eat for free. Many districts had to revamp their system of feeding students, whether that was to change what was on the menu, informing parents about changes so that parents could be prepared financially to send meals with their students to school.

Our students and our schools are in areas that are economically disadvantaged. It was going to be a lot tougher for them. We have a 92% economically disadvantage rate with most of our students in the district, which means these students will either take free or reduced. It’s a big financial strain on parents. At Yes Prep, we pay for any of the paid students and cover the difference of students who have reduced lunches.

Defender: What does YES Prep’s current lunch program provide?

Howell: We are a little bit different than traditional ISDs. Several of our schools were formed from a previous building. We have one that used to be a church or grocery store. So, in those particular schools, there wasn’t a traditional cafeteria and we had to create that. We started to turn the buildings into standardized servery. Our menus are very strategic. We have a good food service company. They are based off a 21-day calendar where there is a dietician assigned, making sure the caloric values are met.

Defender: What nutritional meals should children be eating in schools? 

Howell: What we do is offer versus serve. We offer students five different lunch options and out of those five items they are required to choose three. The national standard is three. They must have fruits, vegetables or grains. For example, let’s say we have the choices of spaghetti, chicken tenders, green beans and an apple with milk. They can choose the green beans, apple and the milk and it would meet the nutritional value for the day.

Defender: What can parents to support healthy nutrition beyond the classroom?

Howell: Find the fun in it. Start easy with fruits and vegetables. Introduce something different when you’re preparing dishes and see how they like it. If you have picky eaters, most little ones like pancakes. They won’t know if it’s a whole grain pancake or not. Add blueberries for the eyes, and use strawberries for the smile. For the older children, start cooking together or find something healthy at the grocery store you can try. Always be supportive when addressing their eating habit. Help them set specific goals and encourage them.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...