Pandemic Menus: are changes to school meals here to stay?
Back in 2019, Balanced conducted a simple analysis of 24 random lunch menus pulled from 15 of the largest school districts across different regions of the country. For this analysis, we recorded simple counts of various meat-based menu items, including those containing beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and fish, as well as different categories of processed meats, such as deli slices, bacon, and hotdogs.
What we found was pretty interesting. Across 20 days of lunches from each of the menus, we recorded a total of 807 meat-centered menu items, of which 87% contained red and/or processed meats. In other words, the overwhelming majority of meat dishes offered contained the most unhealthy forms of meat we have, with only 13% of those items consisting of minimally processed poultry or fish.
But that was before COVID-19 flipped our lives (and school food service) upside-down. How, then, has the pandemic affected what’s being fed the nation’s children?
To find out, we repeated our meat item menu analysis and used another 24 menus (matched for grade-level to keep things consistent) from the exact same districts. As you can imagine, having a second point in time yielded even more illuminating results.
The table below shows us the meat item counts in 2019 and 2021, the simple difference between the two, and the percent change.
Here are some of the most notable findings:
The number of less-processed beef items declined by nearly 30% during the pandemic.
Minimally processed chicken items nearly doubled while chicken nuggets and tenders dropped by 70%.
Similarly, minimally processed turkey items increased by 70%, but deli turkey items also increased by 60%.
There were substantial drops in most other categories of processed meat items, with sausage and ham being nearly eliminated from menus entirely.
While fish stick items declined by 70%, minimally processed fish nearly sextupled.
The sum total of all meat items declined from 807 in 2019 to 653 in 2021 (a 19% drop).
Overall, it appears that, over the last two years, there’s been a big shift away from more processed meat items and toward less-processed poultry and fish. It’s unclear whether this is a result of pandemic constraints (e.g., commodity price and availability challenges) or other factors.
However, we can safely say that, at least thanks in part to stay-at-home orders, the diversity of options available decreased.
This might explain most of the declines we see in total meat items offered. In other words, these declines could simply be pandemic artifacts, but regardless, could these changes be permanent and result in kids eating less meat?
For now, we can’t deduce from these data if kids are consuming and being served less meat this year. However, to account for the overall reduction in items offered, let’s investigate how the proportions of various meat categories changed from 2019 to 2021 to help us determine whether any of the noted changes are meaningful. See the table below.
From these numbers, we can see that beef items comprised about 30% of the total meat-based lunches in 2019, whereas in 2021, it’s almost four percentage points lower. While it’s nice to see a modest downtick, this is far less impressive than the 28% decline in the simple count of beef items we saw in the first table.
Notably, even accounting for the drop in overall total meat items offered, the share of red and processed meats declined by nearly 20%. Now that is interesting and unexpected.
The figures also seem to confirm that, despite the large drop in chicken nugget and tender items as seen in the first table, poultry items have increased in number overall due to gains among minimally processed chicken and turkey items, chicken patties, and deli turkey items.
Comparing the 2019 and 2021 values between matched menus, we can see that the reductions in meat items were not uniform across districts (and sometimes not even within districts). Of the 24 menus analyzed, 14 (or 58%) showed an overall decline in total meat items between timepoints while 10 menus showed an increase in total meat items.
In total, 10 (or 67%) of the 15 districts sampled had reduced the number of meat items offered. In other words, clearly not all districts reported meat item reductions, and some districts showed an increase in meat items in one menu and a decrease in another.
Among the “decrease” group of menus, the average reduction was by 23 items, or an average percent change of -46%. Among the “increase” group of menus, the average bump was by 17 items, which translates to an average percent change of +81%. These increases were largely driven by three districts—Houston ISD, Seattle Public Schools, and Orange County Public Schools—which more than doubled their offerings of meat items. There were only two other districts reporting overall increases in meat offerings—Omaha Public Schools and Miami-Dade Public Schools—and their increases were more marginal.
Looking more closely at each school district, we see that just a handful of districts drove the trends described in the bulleted list above. For example, the apparent shift toward minimally processed chicken was driven in large part by Houston ISD and Seattle Public Schools. Similarly, Fairfax County, St. Louis Public Schools, Shelby County, San Diego USD, and Cy-Fair ISD drove the overall decrease in beef items (though Orange County bucked this trend with large increases in beef items).
What’s clear is that there is much heterogeneity from district to district. Nonetheless, there appear to be (1) fewer meat-based options to choose from, (2) a shift away from red and processed meats, and (3) a heavier reliance on poultry, in the aggregate. The first observation is to be expected given the constraints of meal distributions during the pandemic. The second and third findings were less obvious but may also be a result of ongoing pandemic-related price changes or pragmatic changes related to meal distribution logistics.
Only time will tell if these changes are here to stay, but perhaps the disruptions of the pandemic present advocates an opportunity to ask food service operators to continue limiting the number of red meat and processed meat items they serve as students return to the classroom.
In future analyses, it would be helpful to collect numbers of meat-based, vegetarian, and plant-based entrees and their percentages of total entrees offered to determine if plant proteins are gaining ground over animal proteins in the cafeteria. This would provide another dimension of analysis to help us paint a fuller and more accurate picture of the school food dynamics.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: email@example.com To request information about balancing your institution's menu and receive support (FREE!) one-on-one support from Maddy in doing so, please email Maddy directly or visit our Institutional Support page. From there, you can download a step-by-step guide and get started today! Balanced is a nonprofit organization providing the tools, resources, and supports for everyday people to advocate for healthier menus in their community institutions. Please support Balanced's mission with a donation of any size today.