Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Why Waste Money on School Lunches for Poor Kids?

Politics don't mix well with biology and child development, especially regarding nourishing lunches that promote educational efforts.

Over 13 million children in the U.S. live in a state of food insecurity, which sets out a biological life plan for them and will affect everyone in this country. It is not an issue that affects only these kids and their poverty-level families because, as John Donne said:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

We are “a part of the main” and will be in their lives as long as we live. Some will blame crime on these kids when they are teens. They will be vilified as criminal types without considering how the roots of their behavior may have been sown by poverty, discrimination, and a lack of respect for them.

The jails will burst with populations of now-grown kids who never had a chance because they were denied that once daily free school lunch or breakfast. How can a simple school lunch bring on such cultural destruction? How can it not?

Each morning, kids will trek off to school hungry with empty stomachs and know that little will be there for them when they return home. Their one hope is that the school will provide the two meals a day that will sustain them and ward off the illnesses found in the poverty pockets of our country.

There’s a program for kids whose families exist on the poverty level; DonorsChoose.org. I heard a heartwarming story about two little boys who had received their only pair of pajamas from their teacher. They were so thrilled that they wanted to wear the pajamas home. Is your heart moved? Mine is.

Teachers often ask the program for things like afternoon snacks for their students or bottled water, or even clothes detergent that the family can’t afford. Those education saints provide many of the schoolroom supplies with their own money, and the charity has meant a way to give the kids a bit more.

A Young Mind’s Need for Nutrition

Numerous research articles have supported the importance of adequate nutrition for the body and the brain during a child’s first one thousand days of life. It is a time of growth, potential resilience, and potential for the future.

The pathway to adult life is formed early in a child’s life, and long-term brain function, cognition, productivity, and life, generally will be laid down during those early years. Normal brain development depends on early, adequate nutrition during pregnancy and infancy and those critical growth periods as they progress through the school system.

How does an undernourished, and consequently unmotivated child, respond to any educational environment? That’s where the neurons in the brain will be the ones upon which later development (aka stacking where learning new concepts are stacked onto older concepts already learned) will depend. If we do not tend to those early brain connections (synapses), we are committing the gravest of sins.

Protein is probably the most important element in a child’s diet because if it is not there, their development will not progress. Yes, the body can make certain essential proteins, but not all of them. Decreased amounts may be responsible for potential atrophy in the brain.

How does a child with brain atrophy (usually before the age of 3–4) respond in a school setting? We all know the answer; they have low IQs and they are discriminated against even further. There’s no secret regarding how much protein a child needs each day; if they don’t get it at school, they will lag behind others. Then they become the object of derision and bullying.

Estimates are that over 20K proteins make up our bodies. But we cannot make all of them and of the needed proteins or amino acids, some must be gotten from food. Nine amino acids ( — histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine — known as the essential amino acids, must come from food. What if a child’s diet doesn’t contain all of them? You’ve already read the answer above.

Yes, the poor around the world have tried creative ways to work with meager budgets and still provide families with needed protein — usually in recipes that meld the ingredients to form proteins. Rice and beans aren’t simply delicious, they are nutritious and provide needed protein on a fixed income.

School Breakfast and Lunch

The free meals program for children who would get breakfast and lunch free of charge at a school was adjusted during the pandemic. No applications were required, and each child who needed one was given a free meal each day. An act known as the Keep Kids Fed Act, signed in 2022 did provide additional funding for school meal programs and extended waivers but not all students were eligible.

Some families were given meals at a reduced price, some were free and others were required to pay for school meals. What happens when a child doesn’t have the money to pay for their school meal? You guessed it, they go hungry. Unless some kind person on the lunch line decides to give them a free meal at the potential loss of their job, they will not get fed.

Of course, in any large program during a time of serious health problems, supply chain disruptions happened in 2021 and 98% of the programs reported shortages of either supplies or packaging and some items were discontinued by the vendors.

The benefits of free school meals to undernourished, poverty-stricken children and their families (sometimes children will be given extra meals to take home) cannot be overstated. Some of the benefits of these programs include obesity prevention, and increase in overall student health and academic achievements and, of course, combating children’s hunger.

A few food programs are School Breakfast ProgramNational School Lunch Program, and pediatrician Robert Murray, MD, noted the importance of nutrients and brain/child development. He and others believe that breakfast does matter for these kids.

Do these kids only need meals during the school months? Most certainly not. What about the summer when some kids go away to camp or their relatives’ beach houses? These kids are left behind, which is why the Summer Food Service Program exists. What about winter or spring breaks? I hope the planning has included them, too.

We can’t say we’re fighting crime by putting people in jail if we also fail to fight childhood nutrition. OK, not all criminals were hungry kids, but I’ll bet many of them were or felt humiliated by how they were treated in school.

As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined” has more meaning than we care to consider. Hunger is one of those weights bending the twig.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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