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Ensuring Equal Access through School Meals

This summer, the Mission Society is turning up the heat and embarking on a tasty exploration with our Mission Nutrition series, where we’ll explore the meaningful role food plays in our lives and discover the delightful possibilities that await us in the kitchen. In this article, we’re uncovering how our schools are addressing food disparities and why ensuring access to meals is crucial for the well-being of our students.

Every day, our teams create safe spaces where young people across the city can learn and thrive. When students come through our doors, they know they’re entering a world of possibility, and building invaluable skills for their futures. But our schools distribute vital resources beyond academic support, with one of the most significant being in-school meals– a program that alleviates barriers to basic needs, bolsters the social emotional well-being of students and families, and can have a profound impact in and beyond our classrooms.

For the nearly 40% of our program participants who live under the federal poverty line, school meals become one of their most reliable food sources. A considerable number of these students live in food deserts, where access to healthy and affordable food is scarce, difficult to reach, or virtually nonexistent. The disparity in access to food is even more evident when comparing wealthier districts to lower-income neighborhoods. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reveals that these high-income areas have three times as many supermarkets as disadvantaged communities, emphasizing the urgent need to address food disparities and foster equitable access to nutritious meals for all.

At the Mission Society and in New York City schools, ensuring reliable food for students is a top priority so we facilitate food access for young people and families in creative, comprehensive ways. For example, our program staff jumped into action to provide food delivery and pickup for students when they were learning remotely. We host community dinners and distribute food during the holidays so that families in our neighborhoods don't have to go without a celebratory meal. A few of our programs have even created their own food pantries, working out easy-to-understand systems for accessing nutritional necessities.

Our programs also use meals as a time to center connection, social emotional development, and cultural recognition. Power Academy welcomes our K-8th grade students with a nutritious snack each day. Each Wednesday, one of our teams of educators sets up a waffle breakfast station, giving high school students the energy they need to kick off the day. In the summer, we invite our community to picnics that offer a chance for students to spend quality time with their peers and receive meals even when school is not in session.

As a way to foster a community that supports and celebrates one another, we’ve organized multicultural luncheons and potlucks featuring meals from around the world that reflect the diverse backgrounds of our students. These events allow students to share just a taste of the food that feels like home, as well as the pride and love of their cultural backgrounds. Using the touchstone of food to encourage feelings of belonging and understanding is incredibly meaningful to our students who have recently immigrated and are still navigating a brand-new country.

In-school meals play a crucial role in creating a nurturing environment where young minds can focus on learning and thriving without the burden of hunger. Unfortunately, systemic issues create barriers that prevent some members of our community from having equal access to food. We are heartened by the schools and programs that are proactively taking measures to tackle these challenges and correct the disparities in food access. By addressing the basic needs of our students, in-school meals become a powerful tool in breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of security and well-being for both our students and their families.

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