How school districts can finance and sustain meal distribution

Expert Insight

How school districts can finance and sustain meal distribution

As the COVID-19 crisis threatens the food security of millions of Americans, school meal distribution represents a critical support for students and their families. However, distributing meals increases district expenses just as financial projections predict funding shortfalls. Moreover, these operations face the ever-present risk that staff will contract COVID-19. Thus, district leaders must constantly re-evaluate and optimize their approach to meal distribution.

If facing insufficient funds, consider limiting meals to students most in need

To fund meal distribution operations, eligible sites can participate in the federally funded program that subsidizes meal distribution to students over the summer. Eligibility depends on the population the site serves—schools that serve at least 50% free or reduced-price meals during the traditional school year qualify.

Federal funds will also reimburse school districts for meal distribution at sites that serve less than 50% free or reduced-price meals. However, the funding will only reimburse meals served to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Districts should consult federal guidance to ensure that their identification and reporting practices align with federal requirements.

If district leaders foresee that the district budget will primarily rely on federal funds to sustain meal distribution operations, they must make difficult decisions about who is eligible for free meals. These decisions might include limiting eligibility to only children enrolled as students in the district who already  qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

For districts primarily reliant on federal funds to reimburse meal distribution, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released 12 waivers that permit creative arrangements for meal distribution. For example, students can receive multiple meals at a time and can eat their meals outside of school grounds.

Pursue local partnerships to extend district resources

To avoid making difficult decisions about how to allocate meals, directors at sites that do not qualify for federal subsidies must pursue alternate funding. Otherwise, these sites risk exhausting their budgets, leaving students without critical meals. Some ineligible sites are billing the cost of meal distribution to the district. As school closures persist, that approach risks depleting funds from other district initiatives. Other sites have announced partnerships with community-based organizations to extend resources—Arlington School District (VA), for example, partners with a local food bank through its program Meals ‘til Monday.

Districts should prioritize partnerships with local non-profits already equipped to source, prepare, and/or distribute food. Food banks, for example, already have processes in place to accept and package food donations. However, other community-based organizations may be willing to contribute to meal distribution effort—in Los Angeles, for example, unions such as the local Teamsters host food distribution sites.

Partnerships can even provide innovative solutions for districts lacking the staff or funds to safely conduct meal distribution. For example, the USDA has announced an initiative with Baylor University’s Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, which will ship non-perishable meal boxes to students in participating districts. For more information on participation, see here.

Re-evaluate safety protocol for staff to ensure adequate protection from COVID-19

Tragically, school nutrition staff members have fallen ill and some have died of COVID-19 despite the initial steps district leaders took to promote handwashing and social distancing. In light of this, district leaders must determine what safety precautions constitute adequate protection for food distribution staff.

District leaders can turn to guidance from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to implement safety protocol—but this guidance is not directly tailored to school meal distribution. EAB researchers identified two organizations that provide guidance specifically aligned with school meal distribution operations. Explore the graphic below for selected recommendations from these organizations, or access the full resources: LunchAssist’s Emergency Meal Service Toolkit, LunchAssist’s Food Service Safety Precautions, and the Urban School Food Alliance’s infographic Covid-19 Response Best Practices for Meal Service.


  • Implement staffing strategies that reduce exposure, such as staggered or isolated teams
  • Adopt distinct social distancing protocols for different meal distribution models

Urban School Food Alliance

  • Distribute multiple days of meals at a time to reduce traffic at meal distribution sites
  • Prepare food in large kitchens with separate workspaces

Administrators can also learn from school districts with successful meal distribution operations. On April 6th—the day before meal distribution in school districts such as Durham, NC stopped indefinitely due to COVID-19 exposure concerns—Philadelphia School District served meals to approximately 1,000 students. Weeks later, the operation continues to serve students by drastically limiting the number of times meals are available each week, and thus promoting social distancing. The district uses a number of precautionary measures and safety protocols. For example:

  • Nutrition staff members each work at a separate, socially distant station stocked with gloves, masks, and disinfectant wipes.
  • Students receive six meals at a time to reduce the number of times families visit distribution stations each week.

District leaders must transform meal distribution operations from a stopgap measure to a sustainable, long-term initiative. These recommendations, resources, and case studies provide a framework for that important action.

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