School Nutrition in the Age of a Pandemic

By Lisa Andrews Med RD LD


It’s August! A time when students are getting ready to return to school. While many of us think of school as a place to learn and socialize, families suffering food insecurity may see it as a place to eat. Many schools operate year-round to keep kids fed during the summer months.

Summer feeding

Dietitian Donna Martin, Director of Burke County School Nutrition Program in Atlanta has been working all summer with her staff of 50+ people, feeding roughly 4,000 students a day. “Food is either being picked up by families or being delivered by buses. While it’s been more difficult due to COVID19, the silver lining is that, food that was going to be used by restaurants has been donated through the Farmers to Families program. Families received more produce than usual and are exposed to new and different foods”.

School nutrition programs are federally funded with minimal money coming from each state. Meals must meet federal guidelines to be reimbursed, according to Martin. “All School nutrition programs are locally run by each school district. Some districts may be comprised of one school while some might be 150 schools.”

According to the School Nutrition Association, almost 100,000 US school participate in the school lunch program, which feeds nearly 30,000 students a day. Roughly 90,000 schools participate in School breakfast programs and feed over 14 million students daily. 1

“Families are able to apply for free and reduced lunches at their school district. Eligibility is updated annually and based on household income. Districts or school buildings that are approved for Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) offer free breakfast and lunch to all students based on community-based income”, according to Courtney Morabito, Supervisor of Operations for the Cincinnati Public School District.

Lisa Colbert Gentry, assistant director of child nutrition of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Texas, notes that “currently, districts have a waiver to feed all students free of charge until the end of August. If the waiver is not extended by the USDA, we will continue to serve students based on their eligibility. We’ll use a touchless scanner that will scan the student’s ID badge and charge students for meals according to their eligibility”.

Meal service during COVID

School meals will look very different this year due to COVID19. Morabito explains that according to CDC guidelines, “individually plated meals will be served in classrooms instead of communal dining halls or cafeterias. Child Nutrition Programs are exploring options in mobile feeding to classrooms off carts and kiosks, sending meals home while students e-learn, or even establishing distribution sites for students while they e-learn in home rotations.”

Colbert Gentry echoes the same for her school district. “We plan to eliminate student self-serve options. We will have child nutrition professionals serving students all meal components. In secondary schools, we plan to open lunch lines in locations that will make it easier for students to stay socially distant, such as the courtyard. Morabito agrees, “success with school lunch is largely the advocating for USDA waivers so that all students have access to nutritious meals even if cafeterias are closed”.

Remote meals

With remote learning likely going to continue in the 2020-21 school year, Dayle Hayes, Owner of Nutrition of the Future, Inc notes, “The challenge will be delivery of those meals to at-risk children when they are not in school. Depending on the district, barriers can include transportation (how do families get to/from the distribution point); family status (with adults working who picks up meals); and kitchen facilities (what storage and preparation methods are available in homes). "Normal" challenges will be magnified by other Covid-related situations -- such as families who need to quarantine, increased homelessness due to evictions, fear of applying for government programs based on immigration status, etc.” “Food allergies will add another layer of complexity”, notes Donna Martin.

Thankfully, food shortages have not become a concern despite previous plant shutdowns. Lisa Colbert Gentry in Texas did not experience supply shortages. Atlanta based Donna Martin denied produce shortages in her district. According to Hayes (in Montana), “As of late July 2020, food shortages and plant shutdowns due to covid-19 have been minimized due to USDA interventions. Most school districts were able to obtain products they needed to serve millions of meals during spring/summer school closures”.

“Future disruptions are possible and schools are concerned about the availability of disposable packaging and utensils needed to send meals home during virtual classes. Lack of bags for multiple meal deliveries was a serious problem earlier this year”, states Hayes. Morabito notes “child Nutrition operators have been communicating (early and often) with distributors to request product for the upcoming school year. Programs are in a holding pattern until manufacturers can confirm their product availability with the distributor. It is important to establish back up menus if and/or when shortages occur.”

Food safety

Keeping everyone safe is top priority in all of the school districts. Hayes is “confident school nutrition programs will keep workers and student customers as safe as is humanly possible. These programs know food safety inside-and-out and have HACCP plans for every situation. School nutrition directors are passionate about feeding students and will do everything possible to keep serving meals through the pandemic. They proved themselves during spring 2020 through snow, rain, hail and extreme heat. Check out the photo timeline at TIPS for School Meals at Rock (https://www.facebook.com/groups/177286602996832/).

Morabito notes, “Child Nutrition programs are following guidance from local health authorities and district administration to ensure meals served not only meet (or exceed) USDA guidelines but are safe and accessible. With the popularity of classroom feeding, programs are challenged with documenting safe product temperatures outside the cafeteria, self-reporting health assessments, and strictly enforcing hand washing and PPE usage.”

In all, serving and consuming meals during COVID-19 is a collaborative effort. Custodial services, teachers, paraprofessionals, and kitchen staff are key players on the team to service schools meals now more than ever. Colbert Gentry notes “We will follow all district health and safety protocols, provide PPE to our child nutrition professionals and work with campus administration, teachers, and custodians to ensure the safety of our staff and students”. It’s certainly going to be a challenging year for all involved.

Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. 1. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/resource-files/SFSP-Fact-Sheet.pdf