Some of my best friends are school nutrition professionals. On any ordinary Labor Day, I would salute their hard work, post a few photos of colorful school meals, and move on. But this is no ordinary Labor Day, especially since it is the second observance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, September 6 is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of introspection and reflection. September is Hunger Awareness/Action Month as well.
For all these reasons, I am sharing some important news about school meals and the dedicated professionals who plan, prepare and serve them to 30 million plus children every school day. There is good news: All students K-12 can enjoy school meals at no cost during SY 2021-22, along with challenging news: Feeding all students K-12 during SY 2021-22 is no easy task. Unfortunately, there is also sad news: School nutrition heroes are being treated with disrespect – by school administrators, by educators, by families, and, in some worst-case scenarios, by their colleagues in the nutrition community.
In my opinion, the only things that we should be saying to school nutrition professionals this September are thank you and what can I do to help? Like your mom told you, if you cannot say kind things, please don’t say anything at all. Here’s why:
1. School lunch ladies and food dudes are true heroes. When COVID shut down the US in March 2020, school nutrition programs kept serving meals for hungry families – curbside drive-thrus when virtually every restaurant was closed, and many grocery stores had empty shelves.
2. School nutrition professionals are exhausted. They have served billions of emergency meals on the frontlines with little time to rest and recuperate. They have been creative with meal kits, emergency food boxes and dining in the classroom – but now they are tired, very tired.
3. Healthy school meals for all increases participation. School nutrition professionals know the face of childhood hunger. They saw it before the pandemic, and they watched food insecurity grow during COVID. They are eager to feed as many students as possible and to see meal counts go up.
4. School meal programs are struggling with staffing. Help-wanted signs are everywhere in foodservice. School food programs are short-staffed at the same time they have more students in line for meals. Scratch cooking with fresh and local ingredients also requires more labor hours.
5. Schools have serious problems getting food they order. If you’ve heard the term supply chain disruptions, you know that food products and equipment are also hard to come by. School nutrition programs are having trouble getting many student favorites in the increased amounts they need.
6. School dining spaces have strict safety guidelines. Keeping kids safe during COVID takes extra work and vigilance. Social distancing while eating and keep dining spaces clean requires extra staff time that is already in short supply. Students may also need extra TLC as they adjust to being back in school.
7. School nutrition leaders go the extra mile every day. They go to work on a holiday to take a delivery that cannot wait until Tuesday. They go in on a weekend to check a freezer alarm. They leave their office computers to go into schools to wash dishes, cut up veggies, serve meals and whatever else is necessary.
8. Contingency planning for B-C-D-E is the new normal. Even the best run programs need much more that a plan B. Directors are continually planning for the “unexpected” – school closures, staff rosters with necessary CVOID quarantining, postponed deliveries and _______________.
9. Rather than complaining, take time to help or support. Give school nutrition professionals grace for doing the best they can, with what they have, in very difficult situations. If you are in a school, take a few minutes to handout meals at a breakfast cart or to wipe down tables between classes in the cafeteria.
10. A simple “thanks” can do wonders. It doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. Handmade cards from students are always in style. These thank you cards from USDA Team Nutrition are easy to download and send or print out: https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/stronger-school-meals-educational-materials