School Meals Reach Families, Even During a Pandemic

When metro Detroit schools pivoted to remote learning, school meals adapted, too. How are school food service professionals demonstrating agility this fall?

Close-up of school lunches

In mid-March, before Michigan parents were even aware that in-person school would be suspended in response to the coronavirus pandemic, school food service professionals in districts across the state were packaging meals to send home with parents so children would not have disruption to the meals they receive in school each weekday.

“In some cases, these meals were put on buses and delivered to families,” says Diane Golzynski, director of health and nutrition services with the Michigan Department of Education. Food service workers at Macomb ISD, which runs all special needs programs in Macomb County, even arranged for special education teachers to be on the buses that delivered meals so students at home — some of whom didn’t understand why they couldn’t go to school — could still see their teachers. “This offered a sense of normalcy for students, and it was really incredible.”

Across metro Detroit, Gleaners Community Food Bank stepped in and provided mobile delivery to centralized locations or, in the case of charter schools that were struggling to create meals, simply added these schools into their own meal delivery routes, says Golzynski. Michigan school districts provided 39 million meals to students between mid-March and mid-May, despite school closures.

Agility on the part of school food service professionals meant children didn’t go hungry during shutdown — and the meals they received were of the same nutritional quality as those they’d receive in school.

Fall semester meal planning

This fall, as every metro Detroit district makes decisions about what school will look like for students, the ingenuity of food service professionals will keep students fed regardless of a district’s instructional delivery.

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“I have been talking to food service directors to help them think through the options, which might be serving meals in a cafeteria with students maintaining social distance. It might be serving meals from a food cart in the hallway, or delivery entirely off-site,” says Golzynski. “Every building is different.”

Food service directors operate knowing that delivery methods may change overnight. “If a meal is on your menu and the school is closed, will it be easily deliverable? If not, what do you have in your storeroom? Some have been working on a menu for students at home and a second for those who are on-site — and yet another for kindergartners who have to carry their food from the cafeteria to the classroom. That’s a different scenario to high school kids who are socially distancing in a cafeteria,” Golzynski says.

A bigger picture of feeding the community

Food service professionals have proven they will do what it takes to get meals to students because they recognize the importance of nutrition for students, families and communities. “Well-educated children build a better future community, but some kids don’t have food at home, or don’t have enough food at home. The meals they receive at school are sometimes the only meals they have access to,” Golzynzki explains.

Research shows that the closer to a test a student eats, the better he or she will perform — so access to breakfasts and lunches in school positively affects a student’s ability to learn, she says. “Also, school meals are a great nutritious example of how we should eat to live our lives. They are meant to provide a demonstration of how nutrition helps develop healthy lifelong habits.”

Updated nutrition guidelines for school meals have been phased in during the past decade. “Today’s meals are all 100% whole grain, are lower in sodium, with no trans fats and include a huge variety of fruits and vegetables and milk,” says Golzynski. “Students eat a lot of spinach and broccoli. They have edamame and black beans. They’re eating hummus and red peppers.” All meals include low-fat milk, even when they are home-delivered.

“If a family comes in for seven days of meals, they may get a gallon of milk for each child. I have seen recipe sharing for rice pudding and homemade yogurt or how milk can be frozen. People are learning about the value of milk.” Milk provides bone-building calcium and Vitamin D so it is important for students to get 3 servings every day.

For more information visit the United Dairy Industry of Michigan at MilkMeansMore.org