Healthy School Meal Access More Critical Than Ever In Light Of Pandemic
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LISA MAZZARELLA, HOST:

The COVID-19 virus has undoubtedly affected the workforce, our education system, and, for low income families, has impacted the ability to provide nutritious meals for their children. Megan Lott is deputy director of healthy eating research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Despite the USDA's proposed rule to weaken the nutritional standards of school breakfast and lunches, Mrs. Lotts said the coronavirus outbreak is all the more reason to keep the current standards in place, so children receive the essential benefits of a balanced diet during this stressful time.

MEGAN LOTT:

We're in unprecedented times, for sure, and with the current coronavirus outbreak and limitations on places we can go in public, and also with the grocery store shelves having limited availability of products, we really have to make due with the best that we have. That might not always be ideal, but it's trying to find ways to balance out the more processed foods, even if it's pulling out a can of vegetables, or frozen fruit or vegetables, it's still really important to do our best with what we have to develop healthy meals. There are a lot of great recipes online if you go to USDA’s website. [There are] great recipes that school foodservice directors use as they're preparing school meals. Through the supplemental nutrition assistance program, which many families rely on, there are lots of great recipes there involving minimal ingredients that are pretty easy for families to make with pantry staples and the basics on hand

MAZZARELLA: There's a lot of juggling and scrambling and trying to adjust. Parents are feeling it, and I'm sure the children are feeling it. There's a lot of nervous eating. What could we do to curtail that?

LOTT: You bring up an important point, with more than 91,000 school closures in the US affecting 41 million children nationwide, ensuring our students continue to have access to healthy school meals is more critical than ever. I think the heartining thing is that we are seeing USDA response like granting waivers around the country. I think all 50 states have been granted waivers to be able to continue to serve meals to students, even while schools are closed. Schools around the country are doing really unique things. I do know, for example, that the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s division of student nutrition has received waiver approval from the USDA to do this, and that different schools across Pennsylvania are having meal locations at the front door of each school to be able to hand out meals daily, lunches and breakfast, to enrolled students. Some are even using school buses to deliver meals to drop sites that are pre-identified for kids that can't otherwise get to the school to get those meals during those hours. I think it's really heartening to see that schools are responding [and the] USDA is responding.

Right now the importance of healthy school meals is more urgent than ever before. School meal nutrition standards were updated nearly a decade ago, and the results have been really successful. Now school meals are healthier than they've ever been. Kids are getting more vegetables, more fruits, more whole grains, more of the good stuff. Even if parents are finding their own pantries bare, knowing they can go pick up a breakfast or a lunch that meets nutrition standards that are in alignment with recommendations from the dietary guidelines for Americans, and really based on science and what young kids need, should help relieve some stress there.

Congress just passed an emergency aid bill where if schools are closed for at least 5 consecutive days because of a coronavirus related public health emergency, which i think schools around the country are all there, states have the flexibility to provide additional aid to households through their supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits, or food stamp benefits, to give families more finances to be able to buy healthier meals for their children and healthier foods.

Taking advantage of these benefits that are out there, to give families the resources they need to get healthier foods into the house, is really going to be a big help to many families around the country right now. USDA is also partnering with other organizations to be able to deliver nearly a million meals to students in a limited number of rural school communities that are closed that otherwise don't have access to other food sites. They're really trying to work together to find solutions, from that daily meal drop, to boxes that would contain 5 days worth of shelf-stable nutritious individually packaged foods.

We're learning as we go, and it's promising that the community is responding, but the importance of these healthy school meals has taken on new urgency in light of the coronavirus outbreak, and now more than ever it's important that we continue to provide our children healthy school meals. Local school districts websites are great resources for the latest information on how they're responding, what they're doing in terms of the local efforts to make sure students are still able to access their food, their lunches and breakfasts. Also, resources around partnering with other local organizations like their local food banks or food pantries to ensure that families struggling with hunger and food insecurity still have access. School districts around the country are starting to post additional educational resources, whether it be around reading, writing and math curriculum, or other nutrition-related education and support, so those are great places to look and continue to stay informed.

MAZZARELLA: Deputy director Megan Lott of Healthy Eating Research - a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program promotes the health and well-being of children in areas of nutrition, nutritional disparities, and food security. More details can be found at healthyeatingresearch.org.

For Keystone Edition, I'm Lisa Mazzarella.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity