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It's time to rethink how we view families on food stamps. These programs show why.

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Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Unlimited fruits and veggies, breakfast, and after-school supper. These Vermont schools serve it all — for free.

No matter what, all students in Burlington, Vermont, get breakfast, even in the hallway if they’re running late to class. They can load up on as many fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables as they want.

In other words, these kids don’t have to worry about being hungry during the school day: The Burlington School Food Project runs a free meals program for every child to make sure of that.


Such programs exist in schools throughout the country for one simple but critical reason: Kids need to eat to function. When kids are well-fed, their focus and performance in the classroom improves.

They can also bring healthy eating habits home to their families. Many kids who qualify for free meals in the U.S. have families that depend on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to ensure they get enough to eat outside of school.

Places like Burlington that prioritize and support food and nutrition assistance are wonderful examples of addressing hunger from multiple angles and can be a real game changer.

Students eating a meal in Burlington. Image via ​Ben Hudson/Burlington School Food Project​.

The impact is particularly noticeable for students from low-income and other struggling families.

"When the kids get to school, regardless of their income — if they don't have breakfast, they are hungry," says Doug Davis, food service director of Burlington School Food Project.

"Kids don't want to be hungry," Davis says, "but they also don't want to be embarrassed or humiliated in front of their friends. We really need to create a model that meets all of our kids where they are."

Such a model is vital for children because we know that "where they are" could change in an instant — which is why SNAP is also vital for children.

When a family goes through a natural disaster or a parent gets laid off or there’s a major medical emergency, it becomes all the more difficult to get kids fed at all, let alone fed fresh, nutritious food.

That’s why experts say that school meal programs, in tandem with SNAP benefits, can make all the difference for kids who would otherwise go hungry.

As it is, far too many children in the United States are hungry today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 6.5 million children live in food-insecure households, which means they don’t always have enough food. SNAP plays a critical role in resolving that problem, as nearly half of all SNAP participants are children.

Image via iStock.

We all know what it’s like to have such a busy day that we don't get a chance to eat; we all know how that can affect our productivity and our mood for the whole day. According to economist Diane Schanzenbach, kids similarly suffer when they're hungry during the school day.

"Your brain doesn't function as well when you're hungry," she says. Kids have a hard time concentrating if all they can think about is the emptiness in their bellies.

Research has shown, Schanzenbach explains, that kids with early access to SNAP benefits can be 18% more likely to graduate from high school — a crucial factor in preparing them for an economically stable and healthy future.

In other words, everything can change when kids have enough to eat.

Back in Burlington, there’s no question food access makes for a better school day.

Davis paints a picture of happy, healthy kids when he describes a typical school day in Burlington.

For one thing, students get to make the most of what he calls a "painfully short" 22-minute lunch period. Kids spend more of those precious minutes in their seats with their friends and food without having to wait in line at a cash register.

They also get to choose food that looks good to them, and they learn to serve themselves, making them more likely to eat than if they had food already placed on their tray for them.

A child selects food at school in Burlington. ​Ben Hudson/Burlington School Food Project​.

That’s right — these kids are actually excited to eat their veggies.

Based on research like Schanzenbach's, it’s easy to figure out why these differences are so crucial. A cafeteria full of students eating nutritious food is a cafeteria full of kids getting a great start in life.

SNAP's impact on food assistance is clear — but the effects goes even further than you might imagine.

Schanzenbach and her colleagues tracked families across decades andfound thatSNAP benefits lead to more economic self-sufficiency for women. For those who are mothers, their children then grow up to be healthier and more economically self-sufficient.

Plus local economies get a boost: Every $5 spent in new SNAP benefits generates up to $9 in economic activity.

School meal programs can also give the economy a boost: For instance, Burlington School Food Project sources their food from local farmers, and their "farm to school" approach gets the whole community engaged.

Research also shows that low-income families can use their SNAP benefits to make healthier choices.

Image via iStock.

"The truth is, when people have more resources to spend, they're more likely to buy healthier food," Schanzenbach says. Some slack in the budget means more room for foods like vegetables, poultry, and milk.

Thanks to SNAP benefits and school meals, every family can be empowered to lead happy, healthy lives.

Cafeterias in Burlington light up with students’ smiles as they load their trays with food plucked fresh from nearby farms. Kids have more focus in classrooms and higher attendance rates.

A child at school in Burlington. Image via Ben Hudson/Burlington School Food Project​.

Any family can fall on hard times. Making sure they have enough to eat helps them get back on their feet faster.

If the lessons in Burlington can be applied across the country, millions of kids will have a shot at a bright, healthy future.

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