Sustaining the gains in school meal programs
The world as we know it is changing before our very eyes, thanks to COVID-19’s effects. I am left with a confirmation that nothing in this world is a certainty besides change itself, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be major changes within our industry.
I am confident that we will adapt, and I am optimistic that we will eventually be stronger as a result of whatever challenges we have overcome or those that we have yet to face.
Over the past 50 years, feeding children fruits and vegetables in schools through federally subsidized programs has grown. Within the past decade, marketing efforts by the produce industry, school food professionals, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have contributed to this growth.
Also, additional funding through entitlement programs, and a greater adoption of healthier eating at schools, has contributed to the healthfulness of feeding programs around the country.
But school meals are going to be drastically altered from what they have been in the recent past. No matter in what type of setting children attend school next year, the way that they consume healthy produce is going to need to be different. Encouragingly, many of our legislators have the best interests of our children in mind.
I asked Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, for his thoughts, and he told me, “American farmers grow some of the best produce in the world. But with schools closed, many of the children who rely on free and reduced meal programs don’t have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables they need. I’ll continue working with my colleagues to ensure our students are getting the nutritious meals they need during this uncertain time.”
With this type of support in mind, how can our industry hold onto the progress that we have made over the past decade?
Some adaptations may include more individually packaged produce, creating items that are suited for food carts, or other offerings that decrease student congregation. Perhaps in certain areas of the county, Emergency Non-congregate Feeding Programs (such as how schools are distributing meals now) will still be in place.
What particular applications will be suited for this style of meals? It is too soon to predict what will happen, but no matter what occurs, fresh, healthy produce needs to wind up in the mouths of our children.
We cannot tolerate any backsliding on the significant gains that have been made over the past decades. We cannot allow for shelf-stable and highly-processed items to take the place of healthy produce. It is up to us to find solutions that will work in the new post-COVID-19 normal that we will be entering this fall.
I am certain that we will be able to adjustin order to create some tremendous applications for whatever is to come, and as an industry we will grow as a result.
Alex DiNovo is president and COO of DNO Produce group of companies, Columbus, Ohio. E-mail him at [email protected].