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Is School Nutrition Loss Worse than Learning Loss?

Have we time warped back 10+ years in the progress made in our child nutrition programs? Is there a learning gap to overcome due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the time lost in virtual learning, but also a school nutrition gap? Amidst the tumultuous times of the past 18 months, I can’t help but revisit the purpose of child nutrition programs nationwide.

Simply put, hungry children can’t learn.

Numerous studies reveal the neurological benefits of a “brain on breakfast” versus a hungry student's ability to accept new information, absorb it and regurgitate this information for testing. The school cafeteria played an important role in not only fueling midday hunger and providing nourishment, but also served as an extension of the classroom. This was an anthem sung loud and proud in our pre-pandemic days.

In addition, Farm to school initiatives, “try-days”, speed scratch cooking, and smarter lunchroom principles had us thrilled to find the best day to bring our vision and mission to life. We were excited to utilize these ideas and programs to create colorful spreads of whole foods and local produce fueling lifelong learning both academically and experientially. However, all of these great strides in school nutrition came to a screeching halt.

Not All in School Nutrition is Lost

As I ponder the return to brick and mortar learning and universal free meals for all, I have to ask myself this question. Have we lost this vision of creativity in the lunchroom, a connection to community and healthier choices for healthier children, to an endless barrage of supply chain and staffing woes? My always optimistic and problem solving soul would like to say no - but the reality of day to day operations can’t be ignored. For truly passionate, menu development tribes like my own, we are hopeful that a revisit to what we can create in our school nutrition programs is not forever lost.

Move Forward and Think Outside the Box

Let’s move forward and think outside of the box. Instead of spending time on managing the logistics of out of stock, prepackaged items, let’s spend time on reinventing our staff into fine-tuned production teams. Forward-thinking ideas such as well-written, standard operating procedures, responsible cycle menus, local and alternative back-up suppliers for raw and fresh ingredients would result in time saved compared to time spent spinning our wheels.

The perception that “free” meals or commodity items are low quality is being reinforced by quick, substitute menus that are piecemeal together. Our thoughtfully curated menus and recipes from our current “Survivor” edition of Back to School 2021 provides many solutions to overcome these school nutrition obstacles.

How can we help verse talk about solutions? The answer is - it takes a village. There are several solutions we recommend to overcome these issues.

  • Constant and open communication with our procurement teams.

  • Transparent menus and open communication with our parents, students and school communities at large.

  • Menus that offer flexibility and versatility.

  • Training that is concise, up to date, and ongoing to keep current staff engaged and feel supported.

  • Substitutes brought up to speed and new employees interested in the great work that is school nutrition.

All I can say is we are ALL IN! We want to support, listen and problem solve with you and your team. It’s time to “phone a friend”, and tap into the resources that are available to make your year a hopeful one instead of one of struggle, survival, and repetition. We are here for you. We are your village and tribe. We are ready to help and support you!

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