In March of 2020, the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic forced schools across the nation to close their doors, disrupting not only education but also school meal access for the 50.8 million students currently enrolled in U.S. public schools. In 2019, school cafeterias served almost 5 billion lunches, more than three quarters of which were provided to students either free of charge or at reduced-prices. In order to continue to provide meals for their students despite the closures, school districts across the country have developed innovative ways to distribute food to their students. Although schools are slowly beginning to reopen, the creative strategies for distributing food developed during the pandemic illustrate the potential for future innovations in school meal programs and food distribution.
One of the earliest federal efforts to address disruptions in school meal service was the enactment of P-EBT (Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer) under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of 2020. Under P-EBT, students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches were provided with emergency funds loaded directly onto their families’ EBT cards to replace meals that were missed on days when schools were closed because of the pandemic. The program provided eligible families with just under $6 per day for each day of school missed during the school closures. The program was initially launched to cover meals missed during the 2019-2020 school year, with all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands participating. In July, a report from the Brookings Institute estimated that the program had lifted 2.7–3.9 million children out of hunger during the early months of the pandemic. Congress extended the program on October 1, 2020, expanding it to also include children in daycare centers; however, implementation complications have slowed the continued roll-out of the program in many states.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Food and Nutrition Services branch of the USDA has issued several waivers allowing states increased flexibility in what foods they provide and how they serve them to students. Generally, districts must meet strict requirements that govern school meal distribution practices. The USDA waivers relaxed those guidelines, allowing districts to provide students with ready-made meals, shelf-stable foods and bulk groceries. Distribution restrictions were also relaxed, allowing schools to provide food without the accompaniment of educational enrichment activities, to distribute food outside of general school meal times, and to allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children without their being present.
Another federal waiver, issued in June 2020, allowed all students, regardless of income level and geographic location (not just low-income areas), to receive free summer meals through USDA summer meal programs. In October, the USDA extended this initiative, allowing schools across the country to serve free meals to all students during the 2020-2021 school year. Federal waivers that relax school meal requirements have also allowed all children under 18 to receive free meals and has opened up free meal service to students who attend charter schools, which had not been providing meals during school closures.
Although many districts have used home delivery and partnerships with local organizations for food distribution, grab and go sites have been the most common model for providing food to students during the pandemic. With school cafeterias closed, many districts have set up sites outside of school buildings where families could easily pick up pre-packaged and bagged meals during the school week. A survey by the School Nutrition Association found that across 1,894 responding school districts, 81 percent of school meal programs utilized drive-thru grab and go sites, and 58 percent used walk-up sites to distribute food to students.
In order to minimize logistical challenges related to the school food distribution process, many districts began passing out meals in bulk or providing students with bags of groceries to be prepared at home. At many grab and go sites, students and their families were able to get up to five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches at a time. The meals might include premade items similar to meals generally served in school cafeterias that can easily be heated at home, along with shelf-stable snack items such as granola bars and juice boxes, and, in some cases, bulk grocery items. In the Houston Independent School District in Texas, school nutrition professionals partnered with local food banks to provide curbside pick-up of bulk food packs that included 30 pounds of fresh and shelf-stable groceries, enough to feed a family of four for four days.
Many school districts across the country, particularly those in rural areas, rolled out home delivery initiatives. According to a School Nutrition Association survey, 42 percent of responding school districts utilized home delivery. In some states, rural districts partnered with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. Baylor University’s Meals-to-You program worked in collaboration with the USDA and private industry to provide weekly home delivery of 5-day supplies of shelf-stable food to students who signed up for the program online. Although it has now ended, while in operation the program served 10 million meals to students in 36 states. In other states, including Michigan and New York, some school districts began to deliver meals to bus stops, shortening the distance families had to travel to pick-up food for their children. When Burke County, Georgia closed schools on March 17, 2020, school nutrition program staff headed by Directo Donna Martin, quickly jumped into action, providing packed meals to bus stops near the homes of both public and private school students. And in Arizona’s Tucson Unified School District, school food service staff are doing the same, delivering pre-packaged meals to 67 school bus stops each day.
One of the most pressing concerns with distributing food to students is transportation. Many students and their families have difficulty traveling to school locations for pick-ups for a variety of reasons including distance, stay at home orders, or parents’ work schedules. Many school administrators and nutrition program directors have combatted this issue by using school buses, and often bus drivers, to deliver food and educational materials to students’ bus stops or homes. In one district, Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon, a quarter of all meals the district has provided during the pandemic have been distributed via school buses. In the Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, school bus food delivery has made it possible to reach 1,000 homes per week and distribute more than 9 million meals straight to students’ homes. In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order which allowed all districts across the state to use school buses to transport meals. This practice has been particularly useful in low-income and rural communities where students and their families may rely more heavily on school meal programs while also finding it more difficult to travel to schools for meal pick-ups.
The USDA has developed the Meals for Kids Site Finder, an online interactive map that allows families in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to search for school food distribution sites in their area. Many states and school districts have done the same on a smaller scale. In New York City, New York, families can search an online interactive map created by the City’s GetFoodNYC initiative to find locations to pick up food at schools and community organizations. Nonprofit and private organizations have also released online information to help connect families to pick-up sites and other resources. These include the School Nutrition Association’s COVID-19 Back to School Resources, No Kid Hungry’s Coronavirus Response Resources, and FoodCorps COVID-19 Resources.
Some districts have rolled out programs and resources that allow students to pre-order their meals online, making it easier for families to know exactly what is being provided and enabling them to set up specific times to pick up meals. When Charlotte Mecklenburg Country in North Carolina began the school year fully remote in fall 2020, the county rolled out the CMS Eats at Home program, which allows families to pre-order weekly meal bundles online for home delivery or pick up at a school site. In Denver, Colorado, one district partnered with Wholesome Food Services, a private company, to allow students to remotely pre-order their meals ahead of time so that they could be prepared by school kitchens and picked up at lunch time. The program also allows students to customize their meals, something that has been difficult to achieve with COVID-19 limitations.
Many nonprofit and private organizations have stepped up to assist school meal programs and provide necessary meals and resources to families. National nonprofit No Kid Hungry has provided $65 million in emergency relief to schools and community organizations across the country and partnered with the USDA to develop the Free Meals Finder online map. Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, the School Nutrition Foundation, a national nonprofit, launched its Help Feed School Kids Now! campaign, which has distributed $1,500 grants to districts across the country to help cover supply costs for running meal programs during COVID-19. On a smaller scale, many schools and districts have partnered with local organizations such as community centers, food banks, and after-school programs to expand pick-up site locations and hours, provide food over the weekend when school pick-up sites are closed, and increase resources available to families.
In April, the USDA launched its Farmers to Families program through which it purchases farm-fresh food from national, local, and regional distributors and delivers it to families through local organizations such as food banks and schools. Each farm box includes 30 pounds of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products. As of January 2021, the program has distributed more than 132 million boxes to families in need. Local districts have also partnered with nonprofit and private organizations to bring fresh produce to families. In Oakland, California, the Oakland Unified School District partnered with the Farms to Communities, a new initiative launched in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has been working to deliver free farm fresh fruits and vegetables to students’ homes, hiring parents of OUSD students and other community members to pack and deliver the food, and helping to support small organic farms in the region by providing them with a purchaser for their products. Since mid-April 2020, the Farms to Communities program has delivered 263,452 pounds of fresh produce and is continuing to expand to serve students in the San Francisco and Richmond school districts.
In March 2020,with the closing of NYC’s public school system, the New York City Department of Education shifted to providing ready-made meals for students and their families to pick up at Grab and Go sites at schools and educational centers across the city. In April, Mayor DeBlasio’s pandemic-response initiative, dubbed GetFoodNYC, committed to providing free grab and go meals for all New Yorkers. These Community Meals remain available for anyone to pick up Monday-Friday between 3:00-5:00pm, no ID or registration required. A map of locations to pick up Community Meals can be found here.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has caused systemwide disruptions of school meal programs, the USDA, states, and local school districts have been quick to find innovative ways to continue ensuring that students across the country received essential food. The shift towards grab and go meal sites, new programs like P-EBT, and the development of online resources illustrate the ability of school meal programs to innovate during times of crisis. Though school districts will most likely switch back to traditional, in-school meal distribution once schools are able to fully open again, the innovations in school food initiatives pioneered during the COVID-19 pandemic may have a lasting impact on school meal programs. For example, calls for the USDA to establish universal free school meals on a permanent basis have intensified, with advocates arguing that no-cost school lunch reduces stress and stigma for students receiving free lunch. Cities such as New York City and Houston already provide universal free lunch to all public school students; however, this is not a common practice across the country.