kids at food corps day

Every parent wants the best school for their child, and most agree that a good education—one that bolsters skill development and helps kids reach their full potential—includes staffed libraries, up-to-date textbooks, access to new technology, counseling to support social wellbeing and mental health, and space and time for kids to move their bodies and exercise their creative minds.

And most parents expect that schools provide these resources at no charge (outside of tax dollars) so that children reach critical developmental milestones. That’s what schools do.

Those of us in the field of nutrition know that access to nutritious food is also essential to help children reach developmental milestones. In fact, nutritious meals are truly the building blocks for everything that the best schools teach children—from unwinding a complex math problem to deciphering one’s first words on the page. And educating children about healthy eating habits might be just as crucial as teaching them to read, write, add, and subtract.

If this is the case, why are we still bickering over providing nutritious school meals—which include fresh fruits and vegetables and minimal processed foods and added sugars—to all children free of charge? Do we ask parents to pay for well-trained teachers, library books, and gym classes? No. In fact we know that they expect and demand these precursors to a good education.

Universal free school meals are just another precursor to a good education that all parents should demand. California, Maine, and Colorado now provide universal free school meals, and other states, including New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, are moving in that direction.

During the pandemic, the federal government ensured that every child in the United States could eat a nutritious meal during the school day without charge. But no more—the waivers that the government had provided have run out. If a family doesn’t live in one of the half a dozen states that is moving in the right direction, they’re out of luck.

But there’s a hope: organizations like FoodCorps—a national nonprofit that works at both the state and national level to bring nutrition education and healthy school meals to all children—is hard at work on policy solutions. They also train young service members who work in schools, alongside teachers, to educate children on nutrition and to build school gardens.

Parents who may remain unconvinced that it’s the job of schools to offer free nutritious meals to all should check out FoodCorps’ “Case for Food”. Those ready to demand the best for their children can find out what FoodCorps is doing in their community and help them advocate for all of our children. Because in school, every child deserves a free lunch.

seriousfun camp

In 1988, legendary actor and philanthropist Paul Newman founded The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, to provide a place where kids with serious medical conditions could get away from the challenges of everyday life, be themselves at a site designed specifically for their needs, and, in his words, “raise a little hell.” Inspired by that first camp, today, across 19 countries, there are 30 member camps and partner programs that make up SeriousFun Children’s Network. While hundreds of thousands who have experienced these camps know the lasting impact, data now proves this to be the case.

Based on a 2021 American Institutes for Research study of more than 2,200 former SeriousFun campers aged 17-30, more than 80% of respondents reported that their SeriousFun camp experience played a major role in the development of personal, social, and health-related outcomes, which they use in their everyday adolescent and adult lives, including the willingness to try new things (90% of respondents), appreciation of diversity (88%), self-identity (86%), empathy and compassion (86%), and self-confidence (85%).

SeriousFun alumni also reported similar positive results no matter how many times they attended camp, and the results did not differ based on their age, gender, medical diagnosis, ethnic background, or nationality.

This leads us to ask what it is that promotes these positive outcomes from SeriousFun camps, and can they be applied to children more broadly, particularly given the mental health crisis we are seeing with children? And from the stressful times of pandemic, is there something we can all learn about reducing feelings of isolation and powerlessness among all children from the children who, because of their illnesses, understand these feelings all too well?

The research showed that what was essential to campers’ experience was feeling accepted and not judged, feeling a sense of freedom and possibility, and trying new things. One alumni camper attributed this to the “welcoming, ‘come as you are’ environment” that is created at camp, and another saying, “the fact that despite the many limitations that accompanied me at that time, I was able to try many new opportunities that seemed unattainable outside the camp.”

For so many campers who have gone through childhood being told by others what they can’t do because of their medical conditions, SeriousFun camps are places where they are told what they CAN do—from archery to arts & crafts, ziplining to rock wall climbing, and all other fun camp activities. And this change helps them see so many more possibilities for their lives and futures. One study participant shared, “The most valuable (influence) to me was to learn to be aware of my strengths. Camp taught me how to be more outgoing, how to work with people, and gave me a passion for the arts. Camp brought out all of my strengths and I’m so grateful.”

Knowing that a healthy and happy outlook on life is about so much more than just treating illness, Paul Newman summed up perfectly the spirit of camps for children living with serious medical conditions: “There really is no such thing as a sick child. There are only children who happen to be sick. Think about it, and you will understand the magic of the Camps.”


Just over a decade ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) tested a concept that proved to have a surprising ripple effect—not just for its students but for the region’s economy as well.

That year, in 2012, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council adopted a farm to school practice of purchasing sustainably grown wheat for baked products to serve in school meals. By the 2014-2015 school year, 81% of LAUSD’s wheat products came from sustainably grown wheat. As a result of this single change, 65 jobs were created at the partner distributor outside Los Angeles, Gold Star Foods. At the same time, Gold Star Foods partnered with Shepherd’s Grain, a Portland, OR, based farmer cooperative, to purchase 160,000 bushels of wheat. This supported more than 40 wheat farmers in the Pacific Northwest and allowed for expansion of the cooperative into California.

The economic gain was also a boost for the environment. All the farmers in the cooperative were Food Alliance-certified, adhering to strict water and soil conservation methods.

With many state conversations focused on universal free school meals, we have an opportunity not only to help children develop healthy eating habits and bodies but also to benefit regional economies, as Los Angeles has done.

The choices local districts make on how to source food with school lunch dollars can create jobs, improve the environment, contribute to nutrition security for children, and save on healthcare spending (healthy eating habits in children can avoid obesity and diabetes), in addition to maximizing our investment in the future of our youth.

group collecting harvest

The K-12 public school system accounts for $20 billion annually of the $1.109 trillion the U.S. food system contributes to gross domestic product. Though this amounts to just under 2%—a seemingly small number—we are still talking billions, and schools are at the heart of every community, from Arkansas to Alaska.

Some forward-thinking state governments and school boards, like LAUSD, require food operators to adhere to a set of core values, such as purchasing from local gardeners and regional farms, and/or purchasing sustainably produced food. Doing so sends positive economic reverberations throughout the supply chain.

Models like this are even more impactful when states and school districts work in collaboration with partners like FoodCorps, National Farm to School Network, or the Urban School Food Alliance, each of which helps districts purchase regional food while they prioritize the development of a healthy workforce. This certainly builds resilient communities.

Ultimately, schools can serve as the model for thoughtful innovation and collaborative improvement because they already play a critical role in shaping the health, wealth, and social integration of our communities. If our states take a mindful, holistic approach to providing

healthy, nourishing, free school meals for all children, we can collectively nourish regional economies, in addition to our children’s healthy eating habits, overall health, and potential.

Lacet farming at school

Lacey Fletcher is a mom, local farmer, and FoodCorps service member in Cedarville, Arkansas. She teaches lessons on school gardens, cooking, and nutrition, and works to promote a school-wide culture of health in her community. As a result, her young students are seeing their food in a completely different way.

As a third-grader, Carson Dyer was asked to describe her ideal garden. “If it was really magic, I would grow squash cupcakes. They would be rainbow and they would grow to be the size of a car so it would take you, like, days to eat it.”

At Carson’s school, students cultivate their own garden and develop a first-hand appreciation for what they eat.

Another FoodCorps service member, Abrianna Peyton, points to the practical benefits of farm-to-school: “I was a big hands-on learner as a child, and there’s something different when you can get in there and do the things yourself and see what you created. Farm-to-school gives kids the self-confidence that they’re capable of achieving things.”

Getting an eight-year-old to want to eat squash for days? Now that’s an achievement!

Newman’s Own proudly supports FoodCorps, which helps to provide food education and nourishing school meals for more than 120,000 students every year.

Clayton at SeriousFun camp

When Paul Newman started the SeriousFun Children’s Network of camps, he had kids like Clayton in mind. Born with cerebral palsy, the challenges Clayton faces every day are no match for the good times that await him at camp.

At first, Clayton’s parents were nervous. “We hadn’t left him anywhere overnight, other than the three months he was in the hospital before he came home,” says Clayton’s dad, Bonswa. “The first time we went to camp,” mom Avie adds, “he literally got there, waved ‘Bye!’ and we were like, ‘What?!’” We were stressing the whole time, but it was amazing for him.”

Though Clayton gets around with a walker and wheelchair, camp is designed with adaptations so that nothing is off-limits for kids with different abilities: horseback riding, mini-golf, basketball, swimming, even zip-lining. “They have a golf cart waiting at the end of the zip-line to take kids like Clayton back up to the top of the hill, so they don’t have anything to worry about,” says Bonswa.

Clayton’s parents credit SeriousFun staff for creating a welcoming experience for their entire family. “They don’t judge any of us, and they know what we need,” says Avie. “They also put their hearts into being there. I think that’s what makes all the difference.”

Newman’s Own proudly supports SeriousFun Children’s Network, which delivers more than 160,000 life-changing experiences each year to kids living with serious illnesses.

Chef Nathan Bates teaching kids

We learn lots of things in school, like math and science and reading. But if given the opportunity, we learn to develop an appreciation for food and where it comes from too. Food literacy can help shape kids’ lives, and health, for the better.

Chef Nathan Bates runs the school meal program at Boyne Falls Public Schools in northern Michigan. He and FoodCorps service member Lindsay Hall have brought local, freshly grown vegetables into the lesson plan, and onto the lunch plate, creating both an appreciation and demand for more nutritious foods.

For example, one day Chef Nathan noticed radishes flying off the student salad bar. He approached Lindsay: “Did you do something with radishes in the classrooms today?” Indeed she had, and now they work together to integrate the lesson plan with the lunch plan.

Local farmers benefit from this, as when children ask their parents to serve at home the foods they had in school. And when schools source their produce from local farmers, an untapped market is opened up for those farmers who might otherwise struggle to make ends meet.

Best of all, kids who get more hands-on food education through school programs, like those offered by FoodCorps, eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables than kids who get less.

And that’s a delicious lesson for all of us!

Newman’s Own proudly supports FoodCorps, which helps to provide food education and nourishing school meals for more than 120,000 students every year.

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