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During the pandemic, schools have been allowed to provide free meals for all students, serve grab-and-go meals when schools are closed, and get flexibility on some nutritional requirements. The federal waivers allowing these changes are scheduled to end on June 30, 2022.
Meanwhile, many food banks are shifting priorities toward providing food that is nutritious, rather than just maximizing the quantity of food.
On Wednesday, May 18th, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health and professor of human development and sciences at the University of Connecticut. She discussed topics including: the role of school food in children’s overall diet and health; how schools may cope with the expiration of the waivers; the growing challenge of food insecurity among U.S. children; research on the effects of making school meals free for all students; the effects of efforts to improve nutrition in the charitable food system; and the importance of food banks and pantries as a way to reach vulnerable children and families.
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: My name is Marlene Schwartz, and I am a professor at the University of Connecticut and also the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health, and my research really focuses on two settings: I study the school setting, K through 12, and also the charitable food system, and focus on ways to try to maximize the nutritional quality of the food that people are getting from those two settings.
Interview with SciLine
What is the role of school food in children’s overall diet and health?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: School food plays a very important role in children’s overall diet and health, particularly since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010 and was implemented in the subsequent years. So, about 30 million children a day participate in the National School Lunch Program. So, when that program improves, it affects millions of children across the country. One thing that people don’t necessarily understand about the National School Lunch Program is just how much better it has gotten over the last 10 years—that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required the USDA to update not just the rules about what was served for the official lunch, but also the rules of all the competitive foods. So, those are the things like snacks and beverages that are sold in vending machines or other places in the school and not part of the lunch program. And we’ve seen improvements in both of those over these years, and research has shown very clearly that the meals served are better, that what children are eating is better, and, in fact, there is some data to suggest that that trajectory of childhood obesity that has been such a concern has been attenuated because of the success of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
During the pandemic, the federal government has provided waivers to school food programs so they can change their services. What changes have the waivers permitted?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: The largest change due to the USDA’s waivers for school meals was allowing for all of the children across the entire district to receive meals at no cost. And that is quite a big change. There are some districts across the country that typically provide universal school meals, but this allowed everyone to. So, that dramatically increased the number of children who had access to school meals.
Another very large change that came from the waivers was for the summer meal program. Typically, that program is much smaller, and meals are served at particular sites in a community—so maybe in a camp or a park or something like that—and children need to be brought there by a parent, and they need to eat the meal right there on site. Well, during COVID, that was simply not reasonable, and so the USDA allowed that program to provide meals to go. So, breakfasts, lunches were packaged up and were distributed to the parents of the children, and this really increased participation because, suddenly, instead of having to take all of this time out of the middle of your day to take your child to go eat their meal, you could swing by when these places were open and pick up a breakfast and lunch together, sometimes breakfast and lunch for multiple days at once, and it really allowed parents to, you know, access these foods in a way that worked with their own schedules, particularly if they’re working parents.
Assuming the waivers will expire as scheduled on June 30, how are schools going to cope?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: It’s hard to know how schools are going to cope when these waivers expire, although having now met hundreds of food service directors through my research over the years, I know that they will cope—that they tend to be a group of incredibly dedicated professionals who know how important their program is for the children that they feed, and they will figure out a way to do it. But we are making their jobs so much harder right now. So, we are adding to the administrative burden of having to go back to collecting information from families to see who qualifies for the meals, and then, in the actual serving of the meals, we are adding back the administrative burden of having to collect the money, having to know who’s paid, who’s reduced, who’s free. So, all of that is staff time and paperwork, and those are things that, over the last couple of years, food service directors have not had to manage and have—they’ve really been able to focus instead just on the meals.
I think it’s also important to recognize that we are still facing supply chain issues—that food service directors often order the food way in advance. It’s not like the food that they’re serving this week was ordered last week. A lot of the orders that they put in are months in advance. And when that food doesn’t show up, they really need to scramble to find other substitutes. And, unfortunately, those problems have continued. And by taking away those flexibilities that they have had and requiring them to sort of go back to the old way of doing things, we’re basically just, you know, really increasing the burden on them to run the program.
What are the effects of making school meals free for all students?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: So, there’s been quite a lot of research on the effect of universal school meals, which is essentially when the meal is provided for free for all students, and it’s been both done in the United States and internationally. And the findings are pretty clear that when you have universal free meals, your participation in school meals goes up, so more children eat them. And the reason why that’s definitely a good thing is there’s also research showing that the meals that are provided through the school meal program are of higher nutritional quality than the meals that children bring from home or get from other places. So, you’re definitely contributing to a healthier diet when you offer those meals and children eat them. You are also helping to simplify the program so that the people running the program can really focus on the meals and not all of the other administrative burdens of running a program that has a three-tiered paid, reduced, free system. So, that’s another benefit. There have also been studies that have found that when you provide universal free meals, you have improvements in academic performance, particularly for students who are at higher risk to begin with. And then there is evidence in some studies that you actually help improve family food insecurity rates. So, when a family knows that their child can get breakfast and lunch every day at school, it really allows them to save their food budget to purchase other foods for the house. And that helps them be more food-secure.
What is the role of food banks and pantries in shaping the diet and health of vulnerable children and families?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: The national food bank network is actually quite large. There are over 200 food banks across the country, and there are around 45,000 food pantries. So, food banks are these large warehouses that—states may have just one. We have one here in Connecticut. Larger states will have multiple food banks that will each cover a region of the state. And that is really where the food industry, retailers, manufacturers or other large donors will send their food. And then the food bank makes that food available at the food pantries. And food pantries is what people tend to think of. So, that is a church or a community center or someplace like that where they actually have food set up that people can come in and take so that they have food for their family.
So, this network has been here all along and has been getting accessed by millions of people. But during the pandemic, it seemed that the profile of this charitable food system really was raised, and people’s awareness increased. And I think all of us remember seeing pictures of cars lined up, you know, dozens of cars in a row waiting for distribution of food from a food bank or a food pantry. And I think that that’s been helpful because it’s certainly allowed us to acknowledge the importance of this system. But I think that it’s also important to recognize that, within the charitable food system, there’s been a real shift in thinking that has been a change from maximizing just pounds—like, giving away as many pounds of food as possible—to really looking at the nutritional quality of those pounds. And there are two large national organizations that are affecting this. One is Feeding America, which is a national network of food banks. And the other is the Partnership for a Healthier America, which is part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative that organization was created. And both of them are working with food banks around the country to really help them track the nutritional quality of their food and set goals for themselves in terms of maximizing the most nutritious foods that they’re able to distribute.
What do you wish people knew about the current state of school foods?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: One thing that I would really like people to acknowledge is the improvements that have occurred in the school meal program after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. And one of the challenges in doing that that I’ve noticed in my research is that sometimes the menu that you get from your school says things like chicken nuggets, pizza, tacos, hamburger. And a parent might think, that doesn’t sound so healthy. And what they don’t know but someone who studies this does know is that those chicken nuggets are baked, not fried, and probably are whole grain breadcrumbs. The pizza probably has a whole grain crust, lower-fat cheese and vegetables on it and that sort of thing. And there’s this tension between wanting to create school menus that will be appealing to children and also communicate the nutrition information to parents. And I think that’s not the easiest thing to do.