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The Impact of COVID-19 on School Meals

School bus

When the pandemic hit and classrooms across the country became virtual, food service professionals at schools worked quickly and creatively to continue delivering school meals to every student.

COVID-19 has changed many parts of daily life, especially the daily life of foodservice professionals. School lunch has reached a new level of importance in the midst of a pandemic that has only served to further spread food insecurity. With students going to school remotely, parents losing jobs, and a quickly spreading pandemic on the loose, food service professionals had to think quickly to redesign their school lunch programs overnight.

As soon as schools went remote in the spring, BYU professors Dr. Lori Spruance and Dr. Emily Patten, who regularly research school meals, were curious as to how foodservice professionals were adapting to the challenge. They began their research by sending out a survey to food service personnel across the country asking them about food safety, COVID safety, safety concerns, and job satisfaction. They also interviewed 34 of the respondents.

What did they discover?

“The configuration of how they did school meals was so dramatically different," said Dr. Patten. Everything needed to be changed to stay safe, and each district and school had a different approach. Some schools, especially those in more rural areas, sent lunches along the school bus routes and got the meals to the kids that way. Other schools, especially those in areas where the kids lived closer to the school, did drive-up days, where parents and kids could pick up their meals outside of the school. Either option varied in the amount of times per week that they delivered meals, with some sending boxes with a week’s worth or a few day’s worth of food inside. Dr. Spruance noted that, “Every school operated differently based on what would work for their particular student and community population. They were coming up with really creative ways to continue to feed kids.”

As food nutrition professionals worked to keep their communities fed, they entered the spotlight of the public eye. They were essential workers, and suddenly they were beginning to feel like the communities recognized them. Dr. Patten quoted a food service professional from an interview, and said “We feel like we're out of the shadows. People see what we do and how we contribute in a beautiful way to mitigate food insecurity.” Many of the food service professionals belonged to high risk categories but continued to work, prioritizing the meals for the kids.

Especially throughout the pandemic, school meals are changing lives across the country. Dr. Patten explained that, “It’s especially important that these programs continue to run because school nutrition programs are the second-largest food insecurity mitigation program in the United States.” Dr. Spruance added that school meals are connected to positive outcomes such as “improved school performance and behavior, and reduced obesity.” School meals also benefit the parents. Dr. Patten said, “Parents save $30 a week by having school meals. If we don’t offer these meals, it’s not just the $30 but the parents’ ability and capacity to feed the kids.”

After everything, the pandemic could have some positive impact on school meal programs. The federal government has approved free meals for all children through the academic year, which is especially beneficial for families who have become unemployed within the year.

COVID has dramatically changed and impacted how school meals are delivered but foodservice professionals have flexibly and creatively risen to the challenge. This generation of students will remember how they didn’t go hungry even when they didn’t go to school.

To learn more about this research, follow this link to the article published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, School Nutrition Professionals' Employee Safety Experiences During the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, or listen to a short podcast published by the same journal.