The Slow Regression of School Lunch

The supply chain disruptions that the pandemic has caused have affected school lunch, and instead of dealing with the effects of these disruptions in the short-term, we should focus on changing these disruptions for benefits in the long-run.

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Grocery store shelves went bare during the pandemic, demonstrating how the pandemic impacted the food supply chain, the process of food transportation from farm to table. Along with altering people’s shopping carts, the pandemic has cut back the availability of ingredients in school cafeterias.

Through school lunch, New York City ensures that each child receives a lunch that covers at least three of the five meal components: grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and protein. These regulations ensure that students receive adequate nutrition, as 35 to 40 percent of a child’s daily calories come from school lunch. Receiving enough nutrients helps students focus and perform better in their classes. A study conducted by the University of California Berkeley found that healthier school lunches led to higher test scores.

School lunch had been making drastic changes in the past decade. With the implementation of universal free lunch in New York City schools, school lunch participation increased by 31 percent, and the stigma for students who had previously qualified for the free lunch program was removed.

The New York local governments have invested in local farms and food production services for public school lunch since 2015. Through New York Thursdays, certain ingredients, like apples, milk, and potatoes, are sourced from local farms to help them survive and compete with larger corporations. School districts that offer more meals sourced from New York receive higher lunch reimbursements; all schools are reimbursed around six cents for each lunch, though schools with 30 percent or more of their lunches sourced from New York are reimbursed 25 cents. This extra reimbursement incentivizes New York schools to support their local providers.

Due to the pandemic, public schools have been suffering from supply chain disruptions. Ninety-seven percent of school nutrition directors are concerned about the continued pandemic supply chain disruptions. Constant lockdowns in various regions, which stopped the flow of food, were one cause of disruptions. The shortage of farm workers led to a lower harvest, and the lack of truck drivers led to unpredictability of product delivery. Increased demands for goods put more pressure on the supply chain. For instance, as people hoarded toilet paper during the pandemic, its cost and demand went up, making it a scarce product. Because the demand for food supplies grew through the pandemic, their prices did as well. Though food hoarding throughout the pandemic had seemingly short-term effects, the year-long duration of hoarding has resulted in long-lasting effects on the supply chain. As a result, public schools have been impacted by both high prices and lack of food supplies. In Missouri, the food distributors for the North Kansas City Schools district stopped supplying ingredients and forced the school cafeteria staff to turn to local depot stores.

Similar issues have become widespread throughout the United States. Due to supply chain disruptions, like contract cancelations or unexpected substitutions in supplied food, school cafeterias have had a hard time fulfilling nutritional requirements. Therefore, the USDA passed waivers for school districts that cannot cover all their meal components. These waivers exempt schools from the mandate that requires lunches to satisfy at least three of the five meal components. However, if school lunch does not cover the five meal components, the lunch’s nutritional value decreases, impacting student performance and health. Hence, these waivers do not offer an improvement as they endanger the nutrition and well-being of students.

Instead of passing waivers, the focus should be shifted toward improving the supply chains. For example, food in the school cafeteria should be more commonly sourced from New York. The closer the supplier is to the school, the shorter the supply chain is, allowing for greater stability and reliability in the delivery and a cheaper cost. Schools can also create long-term contracts with their dedicated suppliers so that they aren’t affected by the changing prices of supplies. The waivers supply a short-term solution, but focusing on changing supply chain disruptions would provide a long-lasting solution.

Though the pandemic has revealed some faults in the public school lunch system, hopefully, we can use these flaws to develop long-lasting changes to enhance student nutrition and support local farms.