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Serving Students During the Coronavirus: Best Practices

This article was originally published on April 2 by the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food Education and Policy:

Congress recently passed measures (H.R. 6201H.R. 748) that enable states to enact emergency school food measures. To provide students with nutritious food during school closures, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued multiple nationwide waivers that allow school food authorities (SFAs) to:

  • provide grab-and-go and home-delivered meals;
  • expand the hours when they serve food;
  • deviate from nutrition standards if there are supply chain disruptions; and
  • allow guardians to pick up meals for children. 

Students can also receive benefits for food on an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card via the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program. But states must submit comprehensive plans to USDA to ensure school food authorities can effectively provide meals to all students who need them. 

The Tisch Food Center has been tracking how school districts are feeding students during school closures. Analyzing urban, suburban, and rural school districts’ responses in an expanding number of states, we determined that without a streamlined federal plan, effective implementation of emergency school meal measures has been incredibly difficult. 

In the next stimulus bill, Congress must consider a comprehensive community strategy to provide students, their family members, and neighbors the food they need during this COVID-19 crisis. Until Congress takes necessary steps, school food authorities should work to implement practices listed below. Every district has its own unique circumstances and available resources, so some best practices may not be practical at this time.

Best practices fall into four categories:

  • expanding access;
  • eliminating barriers;
  • ensuring safety; and
  • communicating with clarity and transparency.

Expanding Access

  • Extend the pickup period. Some SFAs only provide a two-hour window in which families can pick up meals. Allowing them a longer period of time should make it easier for more families to access the food they need and reinforce social distancing.
    • Example: Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) is allowing schools to pick up meals between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm.
  • Serve multiple meals at a time. Providing multiple meals minimizes logistical challenges as well as potential transmission. At the very least, SFAs should provide breakfast, lunch, and, if available, a snack. Ideally, SFAs would provide 5 days’ worth of food.
    • Example: San Francisco Unified School District (CA) allows families to pick up five days’ worth of meals.
  • Strategically locate meal sites. To make it more convenient for families, SFAs have opened meal sites near public housing, hospitals, and community centers.
    • Example: Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) is distributing meals at shopping centers.
  • Deliver meals. Delivering meals directly to homes or along regular school bus routes makes it easier for families that lack access to transportation and reduces potential transmission. Direct delivery is the best option for families in which someone is sick, a member has a severe disability, guardians are working, or who live in rural areas.
    • Example: Ithaca City School District (NY) is distributing meals to families’ homes on a daily basis. Families can us an online delivery request form to sign up.
  • Serve meals during spring break. USDA has made clear in its guidance that the agency will reimburse SFAs for meals served during scheduled spring breaks. By providing meals during spring break, SFAs can ensure there is no disruption in meal service. Check out the Nutrition Policy Institute and School Nutrition Association’s fact sheet.
    • Example: Dallas Independent School District (TX) provided free grab-and-go meals to students during their March spring break.
  • Provide weekend meals. To ensure families experiencing new or greater financial hardship don’t go hungry, several SFAs are now providing food to eat on Saturdays and Sundays.
    • Example: Baltimore City Schools (MD) has provided weekend grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at recreation centers and mobile meal sites.
  • Provide food for adults. SFAs across the country have coordinated with other food programs to provide meals and/or food boxes that adults can pick up at school meal sites.
    • Example: Broward County Public Schools (FL) is providing meals for students and families members who are present.
    • Example: New York City Department of Education (NY) created regional enrichment centers for children of front-line workers to facilitate remote learning and provide hot meals.
  • Provide childcare for school food service workers. Providing places where children are safely cared for allows front-line workers to serve meals.

Eliminating Barriers

  • Do not require children to show identification. Requiring students to show identification could prevent those who need food from receiving it.
    • The School District of Philadelphia (PA) specifies that families do not need to show identification or proof of income to qualify for grab-and-go meals.
    • Example: Seattle Public Schools (WA) is allowing siblings, parents, and guardians to pick up meals without students present.
  • Do not require children to be present for guardians to collect meals. USDA has issued a nationwide waiver allowing guardians to collect meals without their children. The goal of this waiver is to reduce potential transmission.

Ensuring Safety

  • Establish safety procedures to protect staff. Many SFAs do not have personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves to protect school food staff from potential transmission. Some meal service sites have employed security to help ease transactions between staff and anxious families.
    • Example: Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (AK) has set parameters around meal distribution, barring distribution from buildings, requiring staff to set up tables outside mobile sites, and maintaining social distancing.
  • Designate meal pickup sites outside the school building. For those on foot, pickup sites in tents or near the school front doors are a good option. For drivers, curbside pickup is a good option.
    • Example: Chico Unified School District (CA) is providing grab-and-go food at drive-through pick up sites, delivering food to each car.
    • Example: Hawaii Department of Education (HI) is serving fresh breakfasts, so they specified that food should be consumed before 10:00 am for food safety reasons.
  • Establish food safety procedures. Instructions for staff preparing and serving, as well as families consuming meals can help prevent transmission and foodborne illness. Groups like LunchAssist have created resources in Spanish and English.

Communicating with Clarity and Transparency

  • Distribute information about P-EBT and other food assistance options in multiple languages. States have yet to roll out P-EBT. When they do, SFAs should share information along with meals, letting people know how they can access these cash benefits.
  • Use all available media outlets. SFAs are using robocalls, text messages, radio, television, social media, etc. to communicate information about meals, service schedules, and locations.
    • Example: The School District of Philadelphia (PA) used robocalls in various languages and calls from building principals to notify parents about available meals.
  • Provide up-to-date information on future plans. Families are under severe stress.  Communicating how and when SFAs plan to distribute food can help families plan.
    • Example: Prince William County Public Schools (VA) posted on its website that USDA created a waiver allowing parents to collect meals, but the district is awaiting state approval.
  • Publish menus. Include information about food allergens and vegetarian, kosher, and halal options (if available).
    • Example: New York City Department of Education (NY) is publishing grab-and-go menus during school closures and providing peanut-free and vegetarian options.
    • Example: Orange County Public Schools (FL) specify that all children 18 years or younger and any student registered in the county’s schools are eligible to receive meals.
  • Make clear that meals are available to all high school students, including those over 18 years of age.