How COVID-19 Is Impacting Back-to-School Diets

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It’s no secret that COVID is impacting schools, students and communities in a variety of ways. Every family has different needs, and while some families are functioning better at home, others are struggling due to the new state of the world. With a few schools preparing to move back into the classroom and others remaining entirely online, each situation poses different challenges and benefits.

In the United States, many kids rely on public schools for their children’s meals, which means lockdowns and homeschooling programs can leave kids without proper nutrition. Some communities are working to help kids in need, but there are still struggling families and institutions in need of financial assistance.

Diet impacts learning in so many ways. With the country in flux, kids’ lives will be impacted too. Whether you’re a concerned parent, a community member or a citizen looking to create change, there is so much to learn about the way COVID-19 is impacting students’ diets, and how those diets can impact their learning and lives.

1. Community Efforts

Many kids rely on free or reduced lunches for their daily nutritional needs. Thanks to devoted community members and systems, kids in many districts are getting fed even when schools aren’t open.

While some school kitchens are staying open, many districts are sourcing donations for more portable meals that they can provide to kids and families on a regular basis. Many cities are employing pickup and dropoff systems for multiple days at a time, which is good news for families who are short on the resources of time, income and food.

If you’re experiencing food insecurity due to COVID-19 and have trouble getting by without school lunches, there are plenty of local programs that may be able to help. The Food and Nutrition Service database can direct you to meals in your area for when schools are closed.

2. The Impact of Proper Nutrition

Many kids aren’t getting the nutrition they need, even without COVID as a factor. Proper nutrition is crucial for healthy brain functionality and development in kids and teens. Kids don’t learn at their best when they’re hungry or running on empty calories.

Balanced diets based on nutritional, naturally filling foods rich in vitamins and minerals have direct positive impacts on students’ abilities to function and perform well in the classroom. This applies whether the classroom is in-person or at home. Unfortunately, this can be an issue when some kids don’t have access to proper nutrition at home.

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3. Going Local

Many community systems are currently working to provide food for kids through their reliance on local farms. This is good news on many fronts, as local food is often more nutritious and more sustainable for the environment. By consuming fewer resources through transportation and waste, we can feed more kids at a lower cost and keep everything local, especially when it comes to plant-based foods like vegetables and grains.

Many local farms are working to provide grab-n-go meals for students who need food while schools are closed. Additionally, many school districts are even looking to include gardening and other means of food education for kids still being schooled at home.

These measures make great additions to the larger-scale programs working to ensure kids get the nutrition they need on a regular basis.

4. More Time to Slow Down

For kids who have a more stable home situation, being at home or even in a blended classroom can sometimes mean access to a better and healthier diet. Schools often serve processed foods and unbalanced meals, and being home can sometimes give kids access to deliberate mealtimes, healthier options and more home-cooked meals.

It’s important to make sure kids’ diets consist of nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Schools sometimes serve sugary foods without sufficient nutrition. Unfortunately, many kids eat these foods even more frequently at home when income inequality becomes a part of the mix.

So, while some kids are eating healthier due to schooling at home, many are eating worse, and the gap mostly occurs due to socioeconomic status.

5. The Way Forward

While many of these programs are doing amazing work within local communities right now, there is a need for sustained support, especially as schools continue to stay closed to protect public health and safety. When funding drops off, school meals drop in nutritional quality and less kids become eligible for free lunches. Kids need food during the pandemic, as well as the assurance they’ll receive the support they need when school returns to normal.

With schools staying closed for longer, local and state governments need to offer support to those experiencing food inequality and insecurity so everyone can get the food they need at home — because nobody deserves to go hungry, both during economic crises and when the economy is thriving.

Keeping Healthy

While many kids are experiencing more freedom and health with this change of pace, there are many who struggle. It’s important to be aware of the ways health impacts learning and quality of life, especially for the growing kids destined to become our future. To learn more about resources about school lunches and for families feeding children while schools are closed, you can visit the USDA’s website.

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.