Beginning in spring 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed public schools to serve all of their students’ free meals to ensure access to nutritious food during the pandemic. In May, a bill was proposed in Congress to permanently provide free meals for all students across the country, regardless of income.
Proponents of the bill say that not only do the free meals ease financial and time burdens on parents, but that these meals are increasingly benefitting student health and learning since the pandemic began.
Sebasthian Varas is the Nutrition Services Director at the Canyons School District, which covers approximately 33,000 students in Draper, Sandy and Midvale.
“There is a high correlation between good nutrition and academic success. And we don't know what's going on in every home, of course, or if students had the chance to start the day with healthy breakfast,” Varas said.
Canyons serves both school-year and summer meals. Pre-pandemic, Varas said they served around 1,000 summer meals daily, but with curbside pickup and increased availability across the school district, he says numbers have increased.
“Last year, when we started serving meals in the schools, plus some curbside for students that went online, we were averaging about 13 to 15,000 meals per day. And this year, the numbers are increasing because more students came back to the classrooms,” Varas said.
With more students accepting school meals, a recent survey by the School Nutrition Association found a significant number of districts were concerned about supply chain issues, staffing shortages, and struggles adhering to government nutrient guidelines.
While Canyons school district has been able to meet nutrition guidelines, supply chain issues loom.
“I think some of the challenges that we may be seeing now due to the pandemic, there may be some product shortages, just like families at home, could see these at grocery stores,” Varas said. “Same thing happens to us. So if there's a shortage of a product, or something that didn't get delivered, we have to be creative, be flexible, and serve something else.”