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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, foodservice professionals worked quickly and creatively to continue delivering school meals to every student.

With students going to school remotely, parents losing jobs, and a quickly spreading pandemic, foodservice professionals had to redesign their school lunch programs overnight. Recognizing the increasing spread of food insecurity, BYU public health professor Dr. Lori Spruance and nutrition, dietetics, and food science professor Dr. Emily Patten, who regularly research school meals, were curious how foodservice professionals were adapting to the challenge. They sent a survey to foodservice personnel across the country asking about food safety, COVID safety, and job satisfaction. In addition, they interviewed 34 of the respondents.

What did they discover?

“The configuration of how they did school meals was so dramatically different," Dr. Patten said. School foodservice professionals needed to change everything to keep both students and workers safe, and each district and school had a different approach. Some schools, especially those in rural areas, sent lunches along the school bus routes. Other schools, especially those whose students lived closer to the school, organized drive-up days to pick up meals outside of the school. Both options varied in the number of times per week the school provided meals and the corresponding number of meals included in each student’s food box.

“Every school operated differently based on what would work for their particular student and community population,” Dr. Spruance noted. “They were coming up with really creative ways to continue to feed kids.”

As food and nutrition professionals worked to keep their communities fed, they entered the public spotlight. Dr. Patten quoted a foodservice professional from an interview who 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 foodservice professionals belonged to high-risk categories but continued to work prioritizing the kids’ meals.

School meals are changing lives across the country. Dr. Patten explained: “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.”

Parents also benefit from school meals. “Parents save $30 a week by having school meals,” Dr. Patten explained. “If we don’t offer these meals, it’s not just the $30, but the parents’ ability and capacity to feed their kids.”

Ultimately, the pandemic could have a 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 encounter unemployment.

COVID has dramatically changed 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.