6 options for serving school lunch, based on cost and safety

School nutrition provider details the pro and cons of different foodservice models
By: | July 30, 2020
Serving school lunch in classrooms may pose less potential risk of COVID transmission but could be more costly than other options.Serving school lunch in classrooms may pose less potential risk of COVID transmission but could be more costly than other options.
Belinda Oakley

Belinda Oakley

Whether districts are resuming with in-person or online learning, models for adjusting foodservice come with different capacities for social distancing and nutritional variety.

Plans for the school year are changing daily as districts decide whether to open with in-person or online learning, with a growing number opting for the latter.

The various options for revising foodservice also come with different levels of cost, says Belinda Oakley, CEO of Chartwells K12, a leading food-service contractor.

Also, administrations may need to implement different solutions even for schools within  single district, Oakley says.


More from DA: How risky are school activities? This chart has answers.


“You can have one elementary school that, because of classroom capacity, might have one solution while an elementary on the other side of the district does something completely different,” she says

Schools and their foodservice providers have worked to provide more meals at a time to reduce the number of trips families have to make to pick up lunch, breakfast and dinner.

Schools and their foodservice providers have worked to provide more meals at a time to reduce the number of trips families have to make to pick up lunch, breakfast and dinner.

The company has focused on six models for food service, and has details the pros and cons of each:

  1. Lunch and breakfast in the classroom: While it allows the greatest degree of social distancing, it could require the most labor and therefore be the costliest model. Chartwells is also working to help schools make this a touchless experience, where students don’t have to provide IDs to receive meals.
  2. Hallway food service: Using rolling carts is a lower-cost model but would require supervision to ensure students maintain social distancing while waiting in line.
  3. Cafeteria: The size of most cafeterias would allow for social distancing and allows for more variety in meals but this model would also require extensive planning to schedule when cohorts of students could eat and facilities can be sanitized.
  4. Serving meal outside the building: This model could be where students are attending school in shifts. Prepackaged, nonperishable meals can be distributed as students get on or off the bus for morning or afternoon sessions. This model substantially reduces the interaction required between students and food service staff.
  5. Proving multi-day meal kits: Districts continuing with online learning can distribute a week’s worth of meals, reducing the number of trips parents have to take to pick up food. Districts offering a hybrid of in-person and online instruction can give students multiple days’ worth of meals on the last day of the children are in the building.
  6. Shipping meals in rural areas: Chartwells was part of a pilot program in Texas that shipped 10-days’ worth of non-perishable meals to students in remote communities.

“The pandemic has created a very customer-centric environment,” Oakley says. “This crisis has forced us to behave more like retailers, with mobile delivery apps and finding ways to bring meals to students to wherever they are.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.