Giving Compass' Take:

• As schools start to think about re-opening, nutrition directors need to plan for how students will get healthy school meals in the safest way possible. 

• How are you supporting your local school district re-opening? How can funders help schools reimagine access to health and nutrition during COVID-19 restrictions? 

• Learn how organizations are stepping up to equip students with healthy meals during the pandemic. 

The school cafeteria as we know will be unrecognizable when the next academic year begins in the fall, whether or not in-person instruction resumes. Instead of eating in the familiar, raucous spaces they remember, students can instead look forward to breakfast and lunch in their classrooms, or more of the take-home meals that districts have conjured on the fly to replace their conventional food-service programs.

Across the country, school cafeterias have been emptied by the Covid-19 pandemic and meal-service staff have upended their operations entirely: More than 80 percent of schools now offer food via drive-through pick up, and over half offer walk-up services, according to a recent School Nutrition Association survey.

Even policy — typically onerous and slow to move — adapted: This month, the Department of Agriculture extended a crucial waiver that allows all school districts, not just those in poor neighborhoods, to provide free meal service this summer. And while traditional programs are required to feed kids on-site, the agency in May extended waivers that allow schools to operate grab-and-go models and permit parents to pick up food on their children’s behalf.

School nutrition directors say they’re all but guaranteed to need future extensions; they won’t be able to resume regular operations for months — possibly even years.

Citing the futility of enforcing social distance guidelines in communal lunch rooms with hundreds of kids, many schools are now declaring those settings defunct — at least until the pandemic abates. In the meantime, school nutrition directors are reimagining what meal service should look like in the future, while trying to meet the needs of students and families during the immediate crisis.

“It is highly implausible for us to open up a school cafeteria in a traditional manner that most of us are used to seeing by the start of August,” said Jordan Gordon, director of child nutrition services at Kansas City Public Schools, one of Missouri’s biggest districts, serving more than 15,000 students. “It takes a lot of strategy and manpower and planning to open up a school in normal circumstances. But now we’re planning for completely abnormal circumstances.”

Read the full article about school meals by Jessica Fu at Chalkbeat.