During COVID-19 Pandemic, Healthy School Food Practitioners Found Creative Ways to Cope

by Lela Nargi

8/30/21

For a growing number of kids in the US, in the years leading up to the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, eating during the school day had become about more than loading up a trayful of breakfast or lunch in the cafeteria. Compared to 20 years ago, more school districts have worked to ensure that school food is more likely to come from local farm sources, to be made from scratch, and to be accompanied by programs that give students hands-on gardening and cooking experience, as well as health and nutrition education, initiatives that fall under the umbrella of farm to school (when the scratch cooking involves local food). According to the Department of Agriculture(USDA)’s Farm to School Census, 65.4 percent of school food authorities participated in some kind of farm to school (F2S) program in 2018-19, and over 56 percent of them had been involved in F2S for less than three years.

As with school meals generally, these sorts of initiatives required massive pivots by their practitioners as COVID-19 shuttered classrooms, sent kids off to learn elsewhere and created cafeteria budgeting and sourcing challenges that threatened operations. And like the school nutrition directors who “heroically” stepped up to the task of feeding kids last March, says Laura Hatch, co-vice president of impact at FoodCorps, hands-on practitioners working around healthier food access and education nevertheless managed to stay connected to kids and to influence what they ate during the course of any given pandemic day.

FoodCorps, founded in 2010 to improve dietary and health outcomes for children attending K-12 public schools, currently oversees 500 gardens and runs programs in 16 states, impacting about 167,000 students annually. Figuring out how to continue to work with them when they were no longer gathered in schools wasn’t easy. But, like other teachers across the country, “We were able to innovate to reach kids through distance learning. We created remote lesson plans and had lots of YouTube videos and recipes [kids] could make at home, as well as hands-on gardening information” they could use in their own spaces, Hatch says.

School gardens, many of which had just been planted before the pandemic hit, provided two additional opportunities to innovate, as FoodCorps service members went on cultivating their bounty through the summer months. First, in some areas harvests could be distributed throughout the community along with school meals, providing supplemental fresh fruits and vegetables to families — an outcome that was replicated by some gardens overseen by National Farm to School Network (NFSN) participating schools. Second, Hatch says maintaining the gardens meant that once some schools resumed in-person learning a few months later, “the gardens remained safe outdoor learning spaces that provided a sense of normalcy.”

Like FoodCorps, Wellness in the Schools (WITS) is a food-and-nutrition-education program that conducts cooking demos in 190 US schools and has reached about 95,000 students in its decade-and-a-half of operation. Two years ago, WITS launched ScratchWorks, a collective of school food professionals and nonprofits whose members, as its name suggests, forefront “scratch” cooking in school cafeterias — often in conjunction with F2S initiatives that help schools figure out fresh local sourcing. The importance of this work is highlighted in a new study that shows that American kids, especially Black and Mexican-American children, get the bulk of their calories from ultra-processed foods, which has contributed to a steady increase in obesity rates. Keeping kids healthily fed during the pandemic required all sorts of creative thinking on the fly for ScratchWorks school nutrition directors.

Still, in some districts, scratch cooking came to an end when school buildings and kitchens closed, and health codes continued to keep them that way, according to Bertrand Weber, a founding member of ScratchWorks and director of culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). But enthusiasm for the initiative never waned, he says — and schools that had to give up scratch cooking are eager to get it up and running again. “The momentum keeps going,” Weber says.

On his end, navigating the pandemic meant a variety of changes — some easier to make than others. Since MPS has a central kitchen, “we were able to package daily meals that quickly progressed to weekly meal boxes,” says Weber, to the tune of some 220,000 a week. Getting there was slow-going, though; at first, only prepackaged food was sent home, “primarily due to local [and  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] health guidance, which was very conservative as far as making sure every safety protocol was in place.” Little by little, Weber was able to get some food cooked from the central kitchen into those food boxes.

Weber also still had to operate under USDA guidance, which meant that he couldn’t send a meal box home containing, for example, raw hamburger meat to be cooked from scratch in a student’s kitchen. For that matter, he couldn’t prepare burgers at all because “my kitchen doesn’t have a grill. But it does have an 800-gallon sous vide [immersion cooker], which meant I could do shredded pork for burritos.” Weber devised a hybrid model, making things like sandwiches in-house, then gravitating to bulk produce. “We have contracts with local farmers and we all held true to those contracts,” says Weber — a story that repeats across the country among many schools with F2S programs.

What Weber could send home raw were things like green beans and cubed butternut squash, along with recipes for preparing those items. A partnership with a local anti-hunger organization called Every Meal added backpacks of shelf-stable groceries to the weekly mix.

All sorts of non-local food — pre-packaged or otherwise — was hard for schools to come by. For example, says Janna Parker, policy associate for NFSN, “Tyson [Foods] shut down production and when they did get back up and running it was at a way reduced proportion, and schools still needed the same amount of food. So, schools turned around and said, ‘Who do I have to contact?’”

Yes, it turned out that local farmers could provide part of the answer. But in some cases they didn’t have enough supply for everyone who wanted it, either, because of increased demand from food banks and pantries; and in some places, due to state or local requirements, small farms didn’t have the necessary equipment or documentation to be allowed to supply school systems.

Going forward, Weber expects supply issues will continue to needle him. “I just got communication that there will be no tortilla chips available in Minnesota through December,” he says. This is due to employment issues among both distributors, who are short on drivers and in some cases are even dropping schools from their routes; and manufacturers, who are short on their own workers. Add to that a labor shortage in cafeterias attributable at least in part to staff burnout, according to Weber, and what you’ve got is a scenario that’s “affecting our ability to go back to scratch cooking entirely,” he says, even though “everyone is eager to get back to where we were.”

Although it’s not meant to alleviate staffing issues at schools, FoodCorps is launching a new leadership pipeline that will provide mentorship and professional development for anyone thinking about entering the domain of school nutrition. “We want to elevate this as an amazing profession and a career track to explore,” says Hatch. “In response to COVID, as we think about the tremendous work school nutrition departments have done for the past months, this feels new, and newly relevant and responsive.”

In the meantime, NFSN is looking for ways to make local procurement in general easier for schools, as well as to help forge better connections between schools and BIPOC and socially disadvantaged farmers — a connection that a newly updated State Farm to School Policy Handbook shows is gaining traction with F2S advocates. NFSN is also continuing to lobby for some important bills in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization: The Farm to School Act of 2021; the Kids Eat Local Act; the Local School Foods Expansion Act; the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act; the School Food Modernization Act; and the Universal School Meals Program Act — which will hopefully be updated this year after a lengthy delay.

And as Weber gets ready to greet students with scratch-cooked meals this fall, one component of Minnesota’s school meals is still off the table, at least until January: the salad bar.

Top photo by Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock.

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