A new report says universal free school meals, launched at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and extended through the current school year, improved collaborations between school nutrition departments and district leaders and increased student participation in many locations.

Those are among the findings in Nourishing Learners: A Report on School Meals and Education During COVID-19, which FoodCorps published this week.

“Some school districts were really able to increase participation” in meals programs, said Laura Hatch, senior director of policy and partnerships at FoodCorps, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of education and school nutrition.

The initial emergency of the pandemic led to fast, creative problem-solving, Hatch said, and “school nutrition directors had a seat at the table” that historically they had not always had. COVID adaptations that sometimes required packaging individual meals meant “meal quality, along with packaging sustainability, was forced to take a significant step backwards,” the report found. But when students began returning to in-person learning, Hatch said pandemic accommodations led to some silver linings such as longer lunch periods and breakfast in the classroom, which some districts hope to continue.

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Moving forward, FoodCorps supports provisions in the Build Back Better Act that will improve school nutrition programs. Hatch said those include broadening the community eligibility for free school meals, funding kitchen upgrades so schools can do more from-scratch cooking and additional nutrition education, which Hatch said could include developing “more culturally relevant menus.”

The pandemic shook things up, Hatch said, and “it’s kind of broken the mold in terms of what we can’t do,” potentially paving the way for lasting change.

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