After more than a year of mostly distance learning, our kids are back in school, but the past 18 months have been really hard on them. To set our kids up for any form of success, we need to provide them with the tools they need to learn — and that includes nutritious meals. With schools focused on restoring children’s physical, emotional, and mental health, Congress must pass the Build Back Better Act, including its robust provisions for school meals.

Pre-COVID, school cafeterias were feeding 30 million students a day. 22 million kids were on a free or reduced-price lunch program, an indicator that they were dependent on school meals for their daily calories. So, when hunger rates soared during the pandemic, lunchroom heroes stepped up more than ever to pack school meals for takeout and provide much-needed support to many kids and families. 

Now, Congress is reviewing the Build Back Better Act and considering whether to include free school meal eligibility for nine million more children. This is a no-brainer. Studies show that kids who go hungry have lower attendance, score lower on tests, and are less likely to thrive after their school days are over. Free school meals for all students will remove administrative barriers for school meals service providers. It also evens the playing field for students who have been on free or reduced-price lunch programs pre-pandemic. In some states, studies have estimated that one-third of students choose to skip lunch rather than deal with the shaming and bullying of not being able to afford to pay. Let’s end that practice by extending free school meals — with an end goal of free school meals for every kid in America. 

In addition to addressing our growing hunger problem, the Act will include funding for nutrition education and much-needed equipment upgrades for outdated school kitchens. We’ve come a long way since the days of the food pyramid poster that many of us grew up with. These days, a growing number of kids get to learn about nutritious food by getting their hands dirty in a school garden. They plant and water vegetables, then harvest and cook them in the classroom. A Columbia Teachers College study on the FoodCorps nutrition education model found that students who receive more hands-on nutrition education were eating up to three times as many fruits and veggies as students who received less. Other studies have shown that better-nourished kids that start their day with a nutritious meal are more ready to learn, setting them up to thrive for a lifetime. However, most schools still don’t have access to the kind of hands-on nutrition education that can bring about these transformative effects.  

Lastly, the National School Lunch Program turned 75 this year, and many school cafeterias are nearly as old. Some school kitchens have only a freezer and an industrial food warmer to feed hundreds, even thousands, of kids every day. This aging infrastructure makes it difficult to prepare delicious meals from scratch. Just like all of us, students want meals that are exciting to eat, reflect their home culture, and allow them to explore new foods. By giving schools the equipment, they need to cook onsite, school nutrition leaders can tailor the lunch menu so it does all those things. It’s time to invest in the success of school nutrition staff by funding upgrades to our school cafeterias. 

The Build Back Better Act addresses all these areas. As written, the bill would extend free school meals to nearly nine million more kids; expand hands-on food education and school garden programs; promote nourishing school meals that are scratch-cooked, culturally relevant, and locally sourced; and provide much-needed funding to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure. The Build Back Better Act strengthens connections between classrooms, cafeterias, schools gardens and local farms, shaping a school food system that will help our kids and communities spring back from a costly pandemic.

We need bipartisan support for the Build Back Better Act to ensure our nation’s kids have the nourishment they need to move forward from the pandemic — healthy, happy, and ready to learn — and set them up for success in the future. Their recovery depends on it. 

Rachael Ray is a TV personality, entrepreneur, author and food activist. In 2006, she founded Yum-o!, a nonprofit organization that empowers kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking. 

Curt Ellis is the Co-Founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a nonprofit that connects kids to healthy food in schools. FoodCorps and Rachael Ray’s Yum-o! organization have been working together for nearly 10 years, helping to connect kids to fresh food in schools. 

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