The summer of 2022 brings changes to school meal requirements for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, as school nutrition programs transition from pandemic-era flexibilities—such as loosened restrictions around food preparation and packaging—back to pre-pandemic requirements. Millions of pre-K–12 students across the nation depend on school meals every day, and the changes are significant.

Below, I’ve highlighted what these requirements mean for school districts and key strategies for school leaders to consider if hurdles arise.

Learn from the pandemic’s impact on school nutrition programs

School meals are critical to students’ well-being and readiness to learn. According to Feeding America, one in four children is estimated to be struggling with hunger. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on just how vital school meals are for children. On average, students eat more fruits, vegetables, and milk when at school, when eating at school, than at home. That nutrition is critical and contributes to a productive learning environment where students succeed.

It’s clear that the pandemic had a significant impact on school nutrition programs. To help cope with the challenges brought on by the pandemic—such as supply-chain issues and alternative feeding methods—the USDA relaxed serving method requirements.

School districts reworked their menus, sometimes daily, to create options that worked with curbside meals, to-go weekend meals and the ever-changing available products. Each iteration required re-analysis, more paperwork and extreme stress on the program operators.

Katy Hoyng is a Registered Dietitian and School Nutrition Specialist with a Master’s degree in Nutritional Sciences. She has ten years of experience in school nutrition, including as a Director of School Nutrition in a Texas school district and with a school nutrition-focused software company.

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