In order to accommodate families during the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture created school meal waivers to ensure all kids remained fed. These waivers, however, expired on June 30, 2022. Just one week earlier, Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which aimed to support school meal programs. This bill extended school meal waivers for the summer of 2022 but not for the 2022-2023 school year.
Since these waivers expired, “free and reduced lunches will require students to complete an application to determine eligibility, as they have done in years past,” said Justin Roselli, food service supervisor for the Delaware Valley School District in Milford, Pennsylvania.
Before the pandemic, depending on students’ financial statuses, they could be eligible for free or reduced school meals. When the pandemic hit and students were no longer physically in school, schools had to quickly change their ways and begin offering free meals for pick-up.
“It was like the cruise ship that we were on, running normal meal services, suddenly came to a screeching stop and we had to pivot to something that we’re not accustomed to,” said Aldis Ansons, director of food services for the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District. “We are very much geared to providing students meals in school, in the cafeteria and suddenly that changed to us packaging meals to go.”
As schools began to open back up and hybrid learning was in full effect, in-person meals were reintroduced, but not exactly as they were. Delaware Valley had to come up with different seating options to maintain social distancing. In Monroe-Woodbury, exact change was required for students using cash, and touch pads used to access accounts were eliminated. Lunch options that were once self-serve now had to be pre-plated and packaged to minimize contact. Warwick Valley High School made it so that the whole school had lunch at the same time, setting up food stands throughout the building, and having students eat in the hallways to avoid overcrowding in the cafeteria.
A bump in the road
And just when schools were getting a hang of the low-contact and socially-distanced lunches, another hurdle appeared: supply chain problems.
“We’ve had supply chain issues, which have been frustrating,” said a middle school food service worker in Sussex County, New Jersey. “We’ve had to change menus and find deals. We’ve adapted a lot this year, which may continue into the coming school year.”
In the fall of 2021, the School Nutrition Association did a survey on how the pandemic affected school food services. Over 98% of respondents cited “menu items not available in sufficient quantities/shortages” as a top challenge.
“I’ve been here for 28 years and I have never experienced what I experienced as a result of this pandemic,” said Ansons. “There were days, weeks, and in some instances, months where we could not get certain items.”
For the most part, things seems to be returning to how they were pre-pandemic. Less food is pre-packaged, self-serve lines opened back up.
Aldis Ansons is hopeful for a more normal school year this fall. “I think the vendors, the manufacturers, the processors, have sort of fine-tuned their operations,” he said. “We’re hopeful that people are returning back to work, back to the processing plants, back to the distribution system, and that sort of helps alleviate all those bottle necks that occurred. There’s no promises, but we’re definitely looking forward to a better school year.”
“It was like the cruise ship that we were on, running normal meal services, suddenly came to a screeching stop and we had to pivot to something that we’re not accustomed to,” Aldis Ansons, director of food services for Monroe-Woodbury Central School District