Improving School Lunches in a Post-Pandemic World

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Research suggests that local reforms such as farm-to-school programs are needed to improve public health and close the health gap for vulnerable communities.

By Arielle Tiangco for The Optimist Daily: Making Solutions the News

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to rearrange how we structure our daily routines whether at work, school, or play. Some of these changes have been for the better and we hope are here to stay.

For instance, the health crisis forced us to rethink how to feed students once virtual learning platforms became the norm. This spurred many creative ideas on how to provide school lunches, such as distributing meals at outdoor pickup locations. It also strengthened the call to make school meals free for all students.

School nutrition experts identify four ways school lunches have changed for the better, and how we can ensure that the improvements are maintained in a post-pandemic world.

Cafeterias with more space and less noise. According to Christine Caruso, Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Saint Joseph, there were already concerns about crowding and noise levels in cafeterias before the pandemic began. If you watch any film about high school, you’ll know that lunchrooms are not always inclusive spaces for all students.

As students return to in-person learning, school districts are allowing students to eat in their classrooms, instead of gathering in a single room to eat. They are also utilizing outdoor tent areas and courtyards to make lunchtime safer. Caruso believes that cafeterias should be redesigned to provide more space, as well as varied spaces for students to eat so everyone has a comfortable place to enjoy their food.

Fewer families paying for meals. The health crisis made it necessary for schools to adjust their programs to feed students who rely on school lunches. This includes providing free meals to all students.

Michael Long, Assistant Professor of Prevention and Community Health at George Washington University, led a research team that analyzed government data regarding meal costs and nutrition from 2014 to 2015. Medium and large schools that offered free lunch to everyone spent $0.67 less per meal than schools that provided meals for free or for a reduced price based on household income. No matter the cost, the nutritional quality of the lunches stayed the same.

The pandemic has made the benefits of providing free lunches obvious, but systems are sure to regress to old ways if there is no increase in federal funding once financial support Covid-19 ends.

Healthier, tastier meals. Eating in adjusted environments provides schools with an opportunity to support nutritional education and expose kids to healthier meals and unfamiliar flavors. A school nutrition director in Atlanta is doing this already by implementing online taste tests to make school lunches more appealing to students. These involve them heating prepackaged meals and participating in a live Zoom session with the school chef. The chef guides them through the preparation and invites them to taste and rate the recipe before it’s added to the menu.

Having students participate directly encourages them to try new recipes and better understand how food, health, and the environment are linked.

More food justice efforts. Before the pandemic, schools were starting to employ cafeteria staff, generally, women and people of color, to cook meals from scratch. Some schools even implemented farm-to-school programs to create jobs, save local economies, and save the environment.

Due to closures, many of these improvements were halted or worse, have been reversed. Jennifer Gaddis, Assistant Professor of Civil Society & Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted research that suggests that local reforms such as farm-to-school programs are needed to improve public health and close the health gap for vulnerable communities.

More funding to support these programs is required, not only in the name of health and justice but also to give us a better chance to recover economically from the pandemic.

Many families have relished the chance to use quarantine lunchtimes as a chance to take a break and enjoy a meal together during the day. American schools are notoriously lacking compared to other countries in terms of lunch quality and accessibility, but hopefully, these positive improvements during the pandemic will continue to expand school lunch programs even after the pandemic ends.

By Arielle Tiangco for The Optimist Daily: Making Solutions the News

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