by Rhyann Green

On July 9, the CDC published updated recommendations and guidance for the upcoming school year, emphasizing the importance of making a return to in-person learning. Further instructions for meal preparation and serving were detailed in the update, including a dismissal of the need for “single use items and packaged meals.”

A national survey in September 2020 from the School Nutrition Association found 86.6% of participating schools discontinued self-service areas, such as salad bars, and 78.2% were serving pre-packaged or pre-plated meals. While shelf-stable meals were on the rise among school cafeterias, hot meals saw a decrease.

In April, President Biden extended free lunch access at schools for all students until the end of June 2022. The USDA released a statement highlighting the President’s decision as well as other avenues approved by the administration targeting food: increased funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, SNAP benefits, Nutrition Assistance Program block grants, as well as the continuation of the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer Program for children quarantining or attending schools remotely. Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education, was quoted in the release stressing the importance of food at school.

“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” Cardona said. “…It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the USDA has also issued several waivers regarding school meals, allowing schools the flexibility to request exemptions from meal pattern requirements for the amount of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in the food children receive. In addition to this flexibility, other waivers allow schools to lessen the frequency of certain nutrition reporting, assessments and data collection when needed.

According to ABC News, the Department of Health and Human Services recently reported only 7% of school districts in the country are still operating entirely remotely, while 42% are offering hybrid operations and 51% are returning to in-person instruction full time.