New Brunswick Tomorrow Surveys Community on School Meals
The school cafeteria is the site of many indelible student memories.
In a community like New Brunswick, where many low-income families struggle to make ends meet, free school meals are also a critical source of nutrition. Yet New Brunswick Tomorrow, in our work in New Brunswick’s schools and neighborhoods, also hears about school meals that go uneaten.
With this in mind, New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT), Elijah’s Promise, and the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance recently partnered to create and distribute a community survey to assess experiences with New Brunswick Public Schools (NBPS) school meals both before and during the pandemic. Between late April and early June, we collected 193 surveys from parents and students in NBPS, representing all grade levels and 14 of 15 schools. Of those, 71% of respondents were receiving NBPS meals during virtual learning.
The survey findings confirmed the vital importance of school meals in addressing food insecurity, particularly during the economic and health crises of COVID-19. Yet they also revealed concerns around the nutritional content, freshness, and cultural appropriateness of school food.
For example, a majority of respondents believed that there should be a limit on sugar in school meals, particularly as there are no current restrictions. Another concern about quality pertained to damaged and expired items. A slight majority said meals sometimes (or more often) contained damaged items, and almost 40% said they sometimes (or more often) included expired items.
With the student population of New Brunswick being so diverse, another prominent topic was a desire for more culturally appropriate items. While 28% of respondents said that school meals were “sometimes” like foods they ate at home, 56% said school meals were “rarely” or “never” like foods they ate at home.
In order to address these concerns and others, NBT and Elijah’s Promise have engaged parent and student representatives to discuss the survey results and recommendations with NBPS. This has led to a productive dialogue about possible ways to work together to ensure that school meals are consistently healthy, fresh, and enjoyed by students.
NBT would like to acknowledge the data analysis support provided by Pooja Sindha, NBT’s VISTA Summer Associate through the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey.