For many of us, the 2021-2022 school year brought a sense of hope through glimpses of normalcy and connecting with the world again. Schools started getting back into the regular grind, businesses flourished again, and employment opportunities abounded. Granted, this year hasn’t come without a few challenges, but in the spirit of thanksgiving and general “wholesomeness”, we can be grateful for some of the positive changes that have come out of these times.
Since the height of the pandemic in 2020, USDA released several waivers allowing districts to serve meals with more flexibility and less hassle. With safety and supply impact at the top of mind, waivers were extended until the end of the 2021-22 school year, unintentionally providing a trial run of universal meals in schools.
While the subject of universal meals had been on the agenda for years, it had yet to take off. These extensions, however, allowed hundreds of school districts to serve meals entirely for free through June 2022. The impact from this could work in favor of passing the Universal Meals legislation post-pandemic. It ensures equal access to nutritious meals, removes the stigma of eligibility statuses, cuts back on lunch line transactions, and reduces the administrative burden on school districts. We have front-row seats to see just how effective this could be.
“Schools that serve free breakfast and lunch to all kids spend up to 67 cents less per meal than schools that don’t, according to a new analysis of USDA data. The findings could bolster the case for universal meals post-pandemic,” (The Counter, 2021).
From school teachers to food service personnel, we’ve seen how vital every K-12 worker is to our society. Staff retention efforts have become more critical than ever, as people look for jobs that care about their health and safety, and provide adequate pay for the labor and risk involved in their day-to-day responsibilities.
“There’s a fair bit of evidence that cafeteria workers, as adults, are more at risk from the pandemic than the children they serve. Yet, their safety has gone largely unmentioned. And considering the poor working conditions, low wages, and lack of benefits that have characterized their job for years, cafeteria workers stand to take one of the biggest hits if more schools have outbreaks,” (The Atlantic, 2020).
All of this has emphasized the importance of employee appreciation, transparent communication, and served as a huge reminder of how much we need each other right now.
The topic of mental health has also been brought to the forefront since lockdowns began. The overall disruption of school routines, socialization, and meals have placed children at the mercy of their socio-economic and racial inequities. Mental health professionals are treating children at an increased rate compared to previous years.
“We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities, and all of our futures,” said AACAP President Gabrielle A. Carlson, M.D. “We cannot sit idly by. This is a national emergency, and the time for swift and deliberate action is now,” (AAP 2021).
This focus on the subject of mental health for children could lead to a restructuring of school services that can reach all communities. While we’ve yet to see just how this will play out in our schools and cities, we can be grateful this topic is now being discussed and given the attention it deserves.
The Silver Linings
Overall, these silver linings can carry an impact on our children and communities for years to come. The future of school nutrition is changing, and it’s a much needed change that puts our children, our staff, and our health back at the center where they belong.