Stephen Dunmore

About the author : Stephen Dunmore

CEO North America Schools at Sodexo

As I reflect on the past 15 months, I believe the resilience that we’ve shown as a society is due, in part, to our ability to consistently demonstrate three key attributes: determination, adaptability and innovation.  

Today, we’re more determined than ever to overcome the challenges we face. And we continue to adapt to our environment in ways we never imagined. But most importantly, we are moving forward at lightning speed with innovations that make us stronger. 

Certainly, our creativity and resolve were tested over the last year—and we passed. Seemingly overnight, we had to learn how to use technology for everything. Doctor visits, virtual learning and even gym classes and happy hours. At the same time, we saw people from all walks of life coming to the aid of others in ways and numbers we had never seen before. Food banks overflowed with donations. The awareness and importance of mental health moved to the forefront. And essential workers continued to show up in big ways to keep the economy flowing and people safe. Together, we found ways to adapt and to see the good in people while reconciling what was happening all around us. Many silver linings have emerged to light the way toward a promising future. 


Fueling our future with food

The COVID-19 pandemic and many other factors mean that whole generations of kids—Gen Z and Gen Alpha—are growing up in a time and place that feel quite different from our own childhoods. While some of us may be nostalgic for the “good old days,” others are eager to embrace the newness ahead.  

You’re still feeding students—likely throughout the summer. While many things have changed, we have all kept fueling the future with nutritious meals that build resilience. What’s different? As we look forward to the reopening of schools this fall, many of us are leaning into the lessons of this past year. Just as we did in March 2020, we’re mobilizing our resources and transforming our operations to continue serving our communities. Collectively, we found innovative ways to feed students during the pandemic, and we fully intend to keep the momentum going. So much of this innovation can be harnessed in our work in the fall and beyond.  

COVID-19 validated what we’ve known for quite some time: Access to regular, well-balanced meals is good for the mind, body and soul of children of all ages. And there’s a growing body of evidence that shows nutritious meals help fuel kids—both physically and mentally—and can lead to improvements in their overall health and wellbeing.  

In fact, data compiled by No Kid Hungry shows that school meals are “critical to students’ well-being and readiness to learn.” The campaign, run by Share Our Strength, which seeks to end childhood hunger in the U.S., not only found that the meals served in schools were often healthier than meals brought from home, but also that those who eat breakfast have significantly higher scores on spelling, reading and math tests than those who do not.  

Data from the Food Research & Action Center further supports the value of school meals beyond the classroom, citing that breakfast and lunch programs help alleviate food insecurity and poverty, while supporting good nutrition, promoting healthy eating habits, and improving overall health and learning. When combined with good policy-making and innovative delivery methods, these programs mean more children get the nutritious meals they need to build a stronger, healthier mind and body—and achieve greater long-term success.

Graphic: The CDC defines school nutrition, school culture and environment, and social and emotional health as baseline equity issues for the whole child and whole community—calling them essential to student success.


Waivers: A sign of the times? 

Given all these factors, few of us were surprised when the USDA extended waivers to provide free meals to all children. The waivers represent a host of opportunity and flexibility.1 The result: All students under the age of 18 will receive free meals for the upcoming school year. Talk about a game changer!

This move by the USDA is significant for millions of families, especially for the nearly 30 million children who the USDA says benefitted from free or reduced lunches at a total cost of more than $14 billion in 2019. Yet, the decision itself begs a much bigger question—one that has long been debated. Should universal free meals (UFM) be naturally woven into the fabric of our communities? Some say yes. Others remain skeptical.

Graphic: The USDA’s National School Lunch Program provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.4 million children daily at a total cost of $14.1 billion in 2019.


Despite the debate, one thing is clear. Both the USDA and the Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona agree that UFM provided through these waivers are exactly what families across the country need right now. And, quite frankly, I couldn’t agree more. Like many of my peers, I believe that all children deserve regular access to healthy and nutritious meals—free, reduced-cost or otherwise. The free meals these waivers provide, as well as the flexibility the waivers give schools in serving them, serve as a strong foundation that nourishes and prepares our nation’s students for success. 

Cardona has gone on record saying, Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals. It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.  

The USDA  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoes Cardona’s sentiment, stating, USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need. States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high-quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.

"Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals. It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”  ~ Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona 


Leading the way to stronger, healthier learning communities 

Children deserve healthy, delicious meals. My fundamental belief that student nutrition is an issue of equity is what drives me to advocate for programs like those provided by this year’s USDA waivers. UFM removes many of the obstacles often associated with free and reduced lunch programs. The most significant of these is that UFM eliminates the stigma associated with applying for and receiving free or reduced-cost lunches. It also cuts down on the shaming that can occur between children during lunch.  Further, UFM alleviates some of the administrative duties that are required to not only process the eligibility paperwork upfront, but also ensure adequate privacy in the lunchroom.  

Now, the question shifts to whether free meals will become a permanent part of our society. “Only time will tell,” as they say. But I believe the time is now for us to build a foundation for a lifetime of well-being for our communities. That’s why I share in the commitment to support student health and achievement, and I pledge to continue providing the knowledge, tools and resources necessary to drive change, especially as it relates to school meals. 

I take great joy in watching our Sodexo teams partner with schools across the nation to deliver on the promises we make to our communities—creating enjoyable, nutritious experiences within clean, nurturing school environments. Our teams serve more than two million students each day, ensuring they have access to healthful, delicious breakfasts and lunches. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, we’ve served more than 305 million meals to kids across the country, using just about every means possible. Whether it was in schools, curbside, via busses or in partnership with other local organizations, we never stopped serving our students—your children. 

In Arizona, for example, Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District (COCSD) distributed half a million meals to children in the community of a little more than 11,000 people, including more than 30,000 meals to non-district students. And it was no easy feat, either! The team at COCSD got creative with distribution, providing 60,000 meals via weekly bus deliveries to people without access to transportation and 15,000 more meals through contactless curbside pick-up. The team even made sure families had access to meals during school closures and weekends, partnering with local businesses to distribute another 11,500 meals through appointments. This same scenario played out at hundreds of other districts throughout the pandemic and continues even to this day in some places. 


Join in the conversation 

Children across the country depend on us—as parents, as decision-makers and as advocates—to drive the change needed to ensure their health and well-being for years to come. Not only do we have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us, but we should also have a desire to provide equitable access to healthy meals for all children regardless of their zip code, race, where they come from or their family’s socioeconomic status. We know that some students are accessing their only consistent meals at school. We also know that they’re often getting their healthiest meals at school, according to the Journal of American Medicine.2 Whenever and wherever possible, I invite you to join in the discussion and let your voice be heard. Because it’s through our determination, adaptability and innovation that, together, we will lovingly nurture the seeds that were planted during the pandemic and shine an even brighter light on our humanity. 


1 USDA - School Year 2021-22 Waivers and Flexibilities

2 JAMA Network - Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018

July 07, 2021