The Conversation: How school lunch could improve when classrooms are full again
The COVID-19 pandemic has completely upended school lunches, like just about everything else for students. Once schools turned into virtual learning platforms, they found creative ways to feed students, including distributing meals at outdoor pickup locations.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has renewed and strengthened national and state-level calls to make school meals free for all students.
The Conversation U.S. asked school nutrition experts what the break from daily in-person learning may change about school lunch.
1. Cafeterias with more space, less noise
Christine Caruso, Assistant Professor of Public Health, University of Saint Joseph: Even prior to the pandemic, staff and students were concerned about crowding and noise levels in cafeterias, according to research my colleague and I conducted on school meal programs.
Now it’s clear that crowding and loud talking are also serious COVID-19 risk factors.
As more children return to in-person learning, many school districts are letting students eat in their classrooms. Schools are also relying on courtyards or outdoor tents to create safer eating environments.
These measures are critical because the coronavirus spreads through airborne droplets and aerosols.
As a public health precaution, I believe that most schools need to redesign their cafeterias to provide more and varied spaces for students to spread out, rather than being tightly packed together, and muffle noise. In addition to using outdoor spaces and classrooms, students can also eat in hallways and other spaces as needed.
2. Fewer families paying for meals
Michael Long, Assistant Professor of Prevention and Community Health, George Washington University: Serving the 30 million students who rely on school meals has required radical rule waivers and program changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes include adjusting meal requirements and allowing schools to provide free meals to all students.
In my research team’s analysis of government data collected during the 2014-2015 school year regarding costs and nutrition, medium and large schools that offered everyone free lunch and other meals spent US$0.67 less per meal than similar-sized schools that certified students for free and reduced price lunch eligibility based on household income. Despite the lower costs – likely due to administrative savings – nutritional quality remained the same.
The pandemic has renewed and strengthened national and state-level calls to make school meals free across the board.
However, this shift will not be possible without new rules and increased federal funding. Without it, when the COVID-19 waivers expire – currently scheduled for the fall of 2021 – many schools will return to the familiar experience of inadequate funding, big administrative burdens and lower participation rates.
4. More food justice efforts
Jennifer Gaddis, Assistant Professor of Civil Society & Community Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Congress provided limited funding in March 2020 to help reimburse school food providers for the financial losses they experienced during school closures. But it wasn’t enough.
More than a quarter of districts surveyed by the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit trade group, said they had cut hours for school cafeteria workers during the pandemic in order to cut costs.
These workers – mostly women and people of color – are far more likely to be in part-time, low-wage jobs and far less likely to belong to unions than the teachers they work alongside.
Due to fewer kids eating school meals during the pandemic and the increased costs associated with COVID-19 safety protocols, these positive changes may stall, or even be reversed.
My research suggests these reforms are needed to transform the school lunch experience and maximize the ability of school meals to improve public health and contribute to a post-pandemic economic recovery.
The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.
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