Meal delivery vs. meal distribution stations: two ways to combat hunger while schools are closed

Expert Insight

Meal delivery vs. meal distribution stations: two ways to combat hunger while schools are closed

With schools across the country closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, district and school administrators are improvising plans to provide free meals to the 22 million children across the nation who rely on their school for daily nutrition. In response, the federal government has relaxed some of the requirements around school meal distribution, including waiving the requirements that students eat their meals at school and in groups, that meals contain certain foods, and that students receive only one meal at a time.

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students in the United States rely on schools for meals
students in the United States rely on schools for meals

These waivers allow district officials to design meal distribution operations that protect public health. District officials are weighing two major options for meal distribution: meal delivery and/or meal distribution stations. In selecting one or both option(s), protecting public health should represent school officials’ tantamount concern—notably, last week in Shelby County (TN), a school nutrition staff member’s positive COVID-19 status shuttered the district’s meal distribution operation. With either option, ensure that staff, volunteers, and families observe social distancing—refraining from congregating in groups and maintaining at least six feet of distance between people—and proper handwashing and food hygiene techniques.

Delivery options that promote social distancing

Meal delivery via school bus routes

At Alpena School District (MI), covering 604 square miles, school bus drivers continue to drive their typical routes every other day. At each stop, NEA Today reports, a paraprofessional and teacher on board distribute a meal package to any child ages 18 and younger and any special education student ages 26 and younger. Each meal package contains breakfast and lunch for multiple days.

This method effectively promotes social distancing: the use of numerous, geographically dispersed bus stops and multi-day meal packages decrease the number of students likely to congregate at each stop. In addition, NPR reports that this model most effectively serves vulnerable populations—for example, students who live with grandparents isolating at home, who cannot travel to distribution sites.

Meal distribution via curbside pickup/grab-n-go

6 feet

distance required between people at all times to slow the spread of COVID-19
distance required between people at all times to slow the spread of COVID-19

At Houston Independent School District (ISD), staff volunteers, local law enforcement, and partners from a local food bank operate 36 meal distribution sites in the parking lots of closed schools across the district. Families wait in their cars to receive meals from the volunteers. Families who walk to the distribution sites wait on X-marks on the sidewalk, each six feet apart.

This method effectively promotes social distancing: most families wait inside their own vehicles, and those without cars wait six feet apart. Moreover, at Farmington Municipal Schools (NM), superintendent Gene Schmidt reports that curbside pickup affords students an opportunity to use school WiFi—from the safety of their families’ vehicles—to download assignments for remote learning for the coming day. This daily WiFi access can help students without internet at home participate in remote learning.

However, in the case of inclement weather (e.g., storms in Houston last week), officials may have to cancel curbside pickup for the safety of volunteers and families.

Comprehensive meal distribution plans

Regardless of the method school officials select to distribute meals, deploy messaging across multiple channels to ensure families know how to access the service. For example, consider this bilingual infographic on Twitter and this flyer posted to a district website. In addition, alert local news stations.

Finally, to ensure sufficient meals for community demand and to avoid food waste, use digital platforms such as Google Forms for online ordering—though expect that actual demand will vary from the number of pre-ordered meals. See here for an example of a comprehensive meal order form at Lake Washington School District (WA), available each afternoon for families to order meals for the following morning. For an example of a meal order form available 24/7 from Camas School District (WA), see here.

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