Strategies and Challenges in Feeding Out-of-School Students
In response to school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s school nutrition programs have transformed into emergency community feeding systems, delivering meals to out-of-school students, their families, and in many districts, other members of the community. Because the crisis is expected to continue and the sustainability of many districts’ emergency operations is unknown, researchers at the Urban Institute assessed the challenges facing families and districts across the nation, the strategies districts are employing to ensure students and families can continue to access nutritious meals, and the situation’s implications for policy changes or future emergencies.
The US Department of Agriculture has begun allowing states to adapt their school nutrition programs’ normal operating procedures. These waivers are intended to make it easier for states to maintain children’s access to healthy meals while protecting meal providers and recipients from exposure to the novel coronavirus. Although take-up of these waivers was initially slow and uneven across the states, nearly every state has now implemented many of the available options.
As schools shift their operations, they are incurring unanticipated expenses to purchase personal protective equipment, packaging materials, and more refrigeration space. Districts, however, do not know if they will be able to recoup those expenses. This is in part because under typical school lunch and breakfast program rules, schools are reimbursed at a particular rate per student meal. When schools are serving meals in bulk to households with several children, it is challenging to keep track of how many meal equivalents they are providing.
Moreover, supply chains have been disrupted, meaning that districts have had to forge new sourcing relationships and to compete with other sectors for personal protective equipment, paper bags, and refrigeration space.
Districts are also trying to consider the needs of their staff and families when making decisions about the frequency, timing, and documentation required for food pickup or delivery.
Districts have attempted to avoid distributing too many meals to one person by limiting the number of meals that each person can pick up and by monitoring pickups across several school sites. However, their major priorities for distribution have been easing families’ access to food and minimizing burden on staff.
In our survey of school district strategies, we examined a mix of approaches for districts of different sizes across the nation.
The Grab and Go model allows parents to pick up meals for children at schools or community hubs, sometimes without the child being present. Some districts offer curbside pickup; in others, families queue at the site. Although Grab and Go is the most common model of distribution, it raises concerns about neighborhood accessibility and the need to balance both location and storage capacity when choosing distribution sites.
Some districts are adapting bus routes to deliver food to children. This strategy may be especially convenient because families are already used to regularly visiting these sites. Depending on how school districts pay their bus drivers, this approach may add costs to the school’s budget but offers a way to retain staff who might otherwise be furloughed.
Other districts are partnering with nonprofits or the private sector to supply children with home-delivered meals. Although several rural districts have elected to use home delivery models to reach all their students, home delivery can also be used to support to specific student populations, such as medically fragile children.
Policy Implications Moving Forward
School districts and local governments should try to collect as much data as possible to better understand the crisis and proposal solutions so federal and local policymakers can better understand and respond to ongoing needs.
States and districts might also need to consider how to provide meal service into the summer or on weekends and whether to include other supplies, such as toilet paper and toiletries, in their distributions.
To alleviate some of the pressure on districts and school staff, policymakers could help districts recoup unreimbursed costs and identify additional flexible funding to pursue multiple strategies. As the crisis goes on, policymakers should be thinking about other methods of supporting children and families, such as expanding the Pandemic EBT program, increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and utilizing other existing support programs.