Has the quality and variety of school lunches decreased since they became free?

Has the quality and variety of school lunches decreased since they became free?

Brooklyn Lavender and Indiea Alexander

Have you ever noticed how your school lunches have changed since the onset of the pandemic?

Pre-Covid, students had not only the option to purchase extras but also had some choices when going through the line about what would go on their trays.  But now the trays have been replaced by grab-and-go paper bags, many lunches have been removed from the regular menu, and items like snack bars and extra drinks have disappeared. 

On March 28, 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture issued a waiver to the Ohio Department of Education that eliminated all eligibility requirements for free lunch. That means that all students could receive a free lunch if they needed it without having to complete paperwork or meet income requirements. Their website says that this was “in keeping with the goal of maintaining children’s access to nutritious meals during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Then, this service was extended to the 2021-2022 school year, too. According to the Ohio Department of Education website, “This opportunity continues the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Ohio Department of Education’s dedication to meeting the needs of the whole child during the COVID-19 pandemic. The expanded program will provide nutritious meals to all students with fewer barriers, serving children learning in person and remotely.”

As a result of this, since 2020, students and families have had the luxury of free lunches (and breakfasts), but many students have noticed the quality and variety of their lunches have gone down. Many students have said they would rather pack a lunch than get the free lunch because of the small portions, “bad quality,” and lack of choice.

In our interview with Linda Richuisa, MMS’s Food Service Manager, she said that a lot of the changes have been to make the free lunch program more practical.   For example, in regard to the removal of extras and snacks, she said, “Because of the universal free lunch, it’s harder to collect money from people [purchasing extras] when nobody even has to pay for lunch.”

On the topic of students’ favorites, it was noted that many items such as walking tacos, meatball subs, and fries are gone. Now, each week brings the same items on repeat–Mondays always the same, Tuesdays the same, etc.  Richuisa said that the choices are now limited to certain foods  for two reasons: “It’s more so getting the kids through the line quickly and availability.”

In an effort to social distance, it was important to avoid lines and crowding.  The bagged lunches allow students to move through quickly, and by eliminating extras, no one has to touch the keypad or handle money.   

“Mr.Destino wants the kids to just get a lunch and sit down,” said Richuisa. “Rather than kids picking and choosing between lunches and getting back up to buy something else, the plan is to narrow down the options–that way it’s less time consuming.”

Additionally, there have been many disruptions in the supply chain.  Food production and food deliveries are often understaffed, so availability of items can be unpredictable. 

Eighth grader Kyndal Murchison said, “school lunch isn’t the worst, but I would rather pack my lunch.” Kyndal said that her least favorite day of lunch is “chicken nuggets and hamburgers. I like my chicken nuggets crispy but there’s not much crisp on them and I just don’t really like the hamburgers.”  Kyndal added, “the food itself isn’t bad, I just don’t like the small portion of food. I end up being hungry.”  

Despite the reasons for the changes and despite the benefits and convenience of a free breakfast and lunch, many MMS students hope that more choice and variety return.