The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the important role schools play in the nation’s food systems, as a source of food for students, an employer of essential food service workers, and a market for food producers.

The pandemic also exposed the deep, pervasive inequities in the nation’s food system, including the devastating impacts COVID-19 had on those historically underserved.

Even before the pandemic, access to healthy food has been a challenge most pronounced for people of color who live in low-income communities. And since the onset of the pandemic, a survey has found that nearly 41 percent of mothers with children ages 12 and under-reported household food insecurity, according to an Urban School Food Alliance; National Farm to School Network news release.

Food system workers, who represent 1 in 5 essential workers, are predominantly people of color who often earn less than a living wage, and have been dying at higher rates from COVID-19 due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions. Concerns exist that farmers of color, who make up less than 4 percent of the nation’s producers, are being overlooked in the US Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Combined, these inequities in the food system span urban, suburban, and rural communities, the direct result of inequitable and inefficient policies and practices as old as the nation itself, the news release added.

In March, nearly all 100,000 schools across the country closed their doors, and there were herculean efforts to ensure school children – nearly 75 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price meals – continued to have access to food. Ensuring every child is fed must be part of the work to rebuild the food system.

As conversations turn toward “what’s next” in responding to the pandemic, there is a tremendous opportunity to change the food system and ensure every person along the supply chain – from grower to eater, is treated justly. To recover from the present health and economic crisis, relooking at the critical role food plays in health, equity, and prosperity in communities is a must.

Many approaches will be needed to do this work, and there are already multiple ideas being shared. There is one approach that deserves more attention: school cafeterias can be a major propeller of this urgent, needed change in how we eat. Here’s how according to the Urban School Food Alliance; and National Farm to School Network:

School cafeterias are the nation’s largest restaurant chain. When school is in session, cafeterias feed 30 million hungry mouths each day. More than 7 billion meals are served annually through the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program and more than $18.2 billion invested in these programs annually. With schools everywhere, focusing on school food supply chains means focusing on food in every community.

School meal funding recirculates in local communities. The collective purchasing power of school foodservice provides an opportunity to invest in local communities – both in the food purchased for meals and in providing stable workforce opportunities. According to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, schools spent nearly $800 million annually on local food purchases, and more than 42 percent of schools report engaging in farm to school opportunities. Every dollar invested in farm to school efforts stimulates an additional $0.60-$2.16 of local economic activity.

School meal infrastructure helps make communities adaptable during a crisis. During this pandemic, many schools have taken on the role of feeding entire communities.  The existing infrastructure of school meals and the experience and ingenuity of school nutrition professionals has allowed them to meet this critical need. Furthermore, schools’ existing relationships with farmers have shown resilience during this crisis: a School Nutrition Association survey found that nearly a quarter of schools are supporting local agriculture and serving local foods in their emergency feeding programs. Simultaneously,  support of local food systems continues to rise during this pandemic is also being seen, according to the Urban School Food Alliance; National Farm to School Network news release.

School meals are an investment in the future. This pandemic shows the country is capable of cooperation and rapid change, and it is important this continues. Every community deserves a strong and just local food system and the country must continue to leverage its collective energy for equitable change as it rebuilds by seeking opportunities for collaboration and action amongst schools, growers, producers, governmental agencies, and community advocates. Investing in school meals is smart and a proven strategy for whole-community health, economic stimulus, and resilience. School meals must be part of the conversion when talking about the future, the news release said.

Source: Urban School Food Alliance; National Farm to School Network