by Rhyann Green

One of the primary challenges schools across the country faced when transitioning to remote learning was how to feed students. Now, as students return to in-person learning, some experts believe the pandemic has taken a lasting toll on children’s diets.

In an article for The Counter, writer Sam Bloch interviewed several experts in adolescence healthcare, many of whom expressed concern over a rise in weight gain among their patients. Columbia University researcher Eliza Kinsey explained that past studies have shown children who eat more meals from home have a “diet that’s higher in caloric, but [includes] nutritionally deficient foods, … and miss out on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are typically offered at school.”

The State of Childhood Obesity, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation project, made several recommendations to the USDA. While they praised the 2012 USDA’s updated nutrition standards, they fault the USDA’s 2018 and 2020 updates for relaxed school meal standards. Healthy Eating Research, an organization also spearheaded by the foundation, found the standards are most likely to affect “students from low-income families attending schools in Black and rural neighborhoods.”

The State of Childhood Obesity urges the USDA to reconsider the 2020 amendments on whole grains, milk and sodium and encourages schools to follow the standards set before 2018 to spur stronger federal policy. The group also supports free meals for all children continuing after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Healthy Eating Research found several benefits to providing meals for all students, including increased attendance and academic performance.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives Ilhan Omar and Gwen Moore introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 to both chambers of Congress on May 10. The legislation intends to provide free meals to children of all ages, regardless of income level. The bill has had no further action and has yet to garner any Republican supporters, however, Democrats plan to push for its inclusion in a future Biden relief plan.