Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series
Overview: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has announced the formation of a task force that will identify best practices for implementing school meals and calendars that are culturally and religiously inclusive.
Population: 8.6 million
Food policy category: Social equity, food equity, nutrition, school food
Program goals: To identify best practices for implementing culturally and religiously inclusive school calendars and serving school meals that accommodate a greater variety of dietary restrictions.
How it works: Members of the Task Force on Culturally Inclusive School Meals and Calendars include students, parents, educators, local school division leadership, school nutrition experts, faith leaders, and representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry and the Virginia Parent Teacher Association. The task force is split into two subcommittees, one focusing on school meals and the other on academic calendars.
The school meals subcommittee will provide recommendations to school divisions on how to offer more diverse and culturally appropriate meals, including vegetarian meals that accomodate Jewish and Halal restrictions. They have sought input from parents and students who have had unpleasant experiences resulting from a lack of understanding and accommodation of their religious or dietary restrictions. Recommendations may vary by location, depending on the cultural and religious demographics of the students in a particular school division.
The calendar subcommittee will provide recommendations for how schools can recognize religious and cultural holidays that may not be categorized as days off on the school calendar. At one task force meeting, participants shared a letter from a Muslim student in Virginia who described having a school holiday for Eid al-Fitr would be “a dream come true.”
In August, task force recommendations will be presented to Governor Northam and the Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, who will then provide recommendations to education stakeholders including superintendents and school nutrition directors. It is not yet clear how the new strategies will be implemented.
Progress to date: The task force first met in late May 2021 and will continue to meet biweekly through July. They plan to present their findings in August.
Why it is important: School meals are important for students’ physical and mental well-being. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) states that children who participate in school meals programs have lower rates of food insecurity and obesity, better overall diet quality, as well as greater academic success and better behavior. However, if students are unable or unwilling to eat the school meals because of cultural preferences or religious restrictions, they cannot reap those benefits. The task force wants school meals to look and taste like what students would normally eat at home so that the meals will be appetizing and support a healthy learning environment for students of all backgrounds.
Program/Policy initiated: The task force was officially announced on June 17, 2021.
Point of contact:
Tori Feyrer, Assistant Secretary of Education
Office of the Governor
Similar practices: There do not appear to be any similar practices in place at the state level.
Evaluation: Evaluation will be an ongoing process as each school division decides which strategies are most effective with their student population.
- Enriching School Lunches with Greater Nutritional and Cultural Values (Extension Foundation
- Feeding Young Minds: The Importance of School Lunches (The New York Times)
- School Meals Seasoned with Cultural Flavors (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Selecting Foods of Children’s Cultural Backgrounds for a Preschool Menu: A Practical Solution (The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management)
- Benefits of School Lunch (Food Research and Action Center)
- Governor Northam Announces Task Force on Culturally Inclusive School Meals and Calendars (Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam)
- Gov. Northam Announces New Task Force on Inclusive School Meals and Calendars, Names Members (WAVY)
- The Importance of School Meals (No Kid Hungry)
- Northam Announces Task Force On Culturally Inclusive School Meals, Calendars (WYDaily)
- VA Schools Consider Making Meals, Calendars More Culturally Inclusive (Fox 5 Washington DC)