School Food Distribution During COVID-19

Christine Clarahan, MS, SNS, RDN, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the School City of Hammond distributing food

During the normal school year, 29.8 million students rely on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to provide them with a nutritious meal with 22 million of them receiving free or reduced meals.[1] Many low-income families rely on school meal programs to supplement their food budgets; in fact, 94% of Feeding America food pantry clients with school-age children engage with the NSLP.[2] However, due to COVID-19, schools across the country were forced to suddenly shut down. Many households that relied on schools for meals now face an uncertainty in their food security. In response, school food service departments have stepped up to fill this need, implementing a variety of distribution methods to get food out to students.

As the pandemic continues to unfold, the USDA has allowed states to apply for emergency waivers to continue to feed students outside of school time through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO)[3]. Both of these programs normally provide free meals in the summer. However, with the waiver, schools may utilize the funding to provide meals during school closures due to COVID-19. As a result, the USDA has made allowances for a variety of meal distribution methods. Across the country, school districts have found innovative ways to get nutritious meals out into their community.

Grab N Go at school sites[4]

  • Schools provide meals through drive-up distribution
  • To limit contact, schools often provide multiple days worth of food at once
  • To reduce exposure, the USDA has provided flexible plans in many states for parents/guardians to pick up meals without children present[5]
  • Schools keep staff on paid status to prepare and distribute meals
  • Some districts utilize volunteers to supplement workforce

Central distribution in community[6]

  • Partner with local organizations to distribute food at central locations away from schools
  • Central location can include housing authorities, libraries, and church parking lots, etc.
  • Drive-thru distribution
  • Allows for same parent pick-up flexible plans as meals provided at school site


Emergency Meals-To-You (eMTY)[7]

  • Available to rural school districts with 50% or more free/reduced meal eligible students
  • Students must qualify for free or reduced meals
  • Delivers 10 breakfasts and 10 lunches every 2 weeks for each child in the home
  • Vendors directly reimbursed
  • School district main involvement is applying for program and notifying families of its resources

Delivery along bus routes[8]

  • Schools utilize bus drivers to deliver meals along pre-established bus routes which provides familiar routine for students and removes transportation barrier for families who can’t access other distribution sites
  • Often deliver multiple days’ worth of food

These are just a few examples of the innovative and creative solutions implemented by school districts across the country. In many communities, schools are on the front lines of combating food insecurity, while racking up massive debt in the process. Even though the number of meals being served is drastically reduced, these new distribution methods are costlier than the standard lunch service. This has led to shortfalls in funding for many districts.[9] To support shifts in distribution models and the need for supplemental funding, many organizations have stepped up with emergency funding opportunities, including No Kid Hungry, GenYouth, School Nutrition Association, and local community foundations.

School food programs have provided nutritious, consistent meals to students across America for many years. Their commitment to their students and their communities has always been at the forefront, but with the ever-changing landscape due to COVID-19, many have had to adapt and change quickly to continue meeting the needs of their students.

To find out where schools are supplying meals in your community, visit












Author: Theresa Mince, Community Wellness Coordinator, Purdue Extension Nutrition Education Program