May 13, 2021

Expanding healthier school communities

Finding ways to provide student meals during pandemic

NEW YORK, N.Y. — An important role for dietitians is to teach children ways to eat healthy.

“Kids just don’t need to be able to learn, they must have healthy food to be able to learn,” said Donna Martin, director of the school nutrition program at Burke County Public Schools in Georgia. “I have a very food insecure population in my county.”

School districts all over the country are trying to figure out what works best for them, said Martin in a presentation during the Issues and Action Steps: A National Forum on Expanding Healthier School Communities event hosted by GENYOUth.

“In my community we have to do weekly meal boxes because of the lack of transportation to schools to pick up meals,” she said.

School meals are an important safety net for children, Martin said.

“Food insecurity has risen to the level that it always needed to be,” she said during the virtual meeting sponsored by Midwest Dairy. “Organizations and corporations all over the country have gotten on the bandwagon to support this issue financially, socially and emotionally.”

“We’re welcoming all our students back in person after spring break,” said Patrick Smith, principal of Maple Grove Middle School, Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota. “This will be the first time we’ll have every student back in the building.”

Building community is going to be one of the biggest challenges, Smith predicted for his school that includes grades sixth through eighth.

“We need to focus on how to get the things going they’re so used to like after school clubs,” Smith said.

“I’m huge on student leadership and student voice,” he said. “The students run our school and that’s why we’ve been so actively involved in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program because the students promote making healthy choices and being physically active.”

“We’re proud to be able to partner with GENYOUth and the Fuel Up to Play 60 program to do good work in the communities and now more than ever with COVID-19 we need to stress these programs,” said Brett Taber, executive director, social impact for the Minnesota Vikings.

“We partnered with GENYOUth around the Super Bowl on the annual Taste of the NFL event,” he said. “That event was able to raise funds that provided over 125 million meals across the country to students that needed it the most.”

The Vikings strive to do activities that create hope and opportunities for kids, Taber said.

“We want to use the power of our team to excite kids about health, nutrition and physical activity,” Taber said.

“The Minnesota Vikings started a foundation food truck program in the last year and we’ve been going out and meeting kids where they need it the most,” he said. “We provided thousands of meals to our twin cities communities because sports teams have that responsibility to give back and at times like this it’s more important than ever.”

Over the past year, Martin said, she has learned about the resiliency of school nutrition employees.

“And I’ve learned how creative we can be to accomplish things on a shoestring budget with all the constraints of not being able to find food, having staff get COVID, having to quarantine and flipping between coming to school or not coming to school,” she said.

“On top of that, a lot of my families don’t have transportation and if they do it’s not reliable or they don’t have money for gas,” Martin said.

“A lot of rural communities are food deserts so they have to drive 25 miles one way to get to a grocery store,” she said. “A lot of them go to the corner store to buy food which makes it more expensive and the options are less than optimal in terms of nutrition and the quality of food offered.”

In addition, Martin said, her community has a health equity gap.

“A lot of our families don’t have access to health care so this has made a lot of our students remain virtual because the family members they live with are at risk for getting the coronavirus,” Martin said.

“Our kids are falling further and further behind and on top of that 40% of our kids don’t have access to internet,” she said. “So, they lose out on school and access to healthy meals.”

However, Martin has been teaching families how to cook with the meal boxes provided by the school.

“Instead of having their meals on a dashboard, now they are having them on a dinner table,” she said.

“The amazing process our food nutrition department put together this year is second to none,” Smith said. “It’s amazing to see how we can get food in our students’ hands during the weekends.”

The school organized weekend packs that were available curbside, as well as delivered.

“We used our transportation when we didn’t have students on Fridays to deliver meals to homes that couldn’t get to the school,” Smith said. “Everybody has a way to get food and we’re really proud of that.”

Another positive aspect of the pandemic is the ability to have school even during snowstorms.

“We have a way to not have so much school loss,” Smith said. “We have a platform that we’re getting pretty good at to provide learning on inclement weather days.”

This platform is also used to reach parents for conferences.

“We now have a way to get to the living room of parents who typically don’t come to school to talk about their kids,” Smith said.

With the pandemic, Taber said, the Vikings were concerned that students would not be able experience the excitement of meeting an athlete.

“We found ways through digital platforms to reach a larger audience of students and still provide those experiences to young people to get them excited about health and nutrition,” he said. “We don’t have to rely on in-person or a classroom visit to have that impact.”

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Martha Blum

Field Editor