4 ways meal service improved quickly during COVID

Shifts in school meal distribution also boosted staff morale and confidence
By: | January 28, 2021

When the number of students eating school lunches and other meals plummeted in Connecticut last spring, food service directors in several districts responded rapidly.

In March 2020, participation in school meal service dropped 32%. The quick actions and innovative outreach developed by school leaders to feed more students in April and May are detailed in a new report by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

In the districts analyzed in the study, school meal participation rates in April and May 2020 approached the level of free- and reduced-participation for the same months in 2019.

These service enhancements also boosted staff morale and confidence, the report notes

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“Despite the inability to plan ahead for long-term emergency school closures, school food personnel quickly shifted meal production and distribution practices to continue feeding their students,” authors of the study wrote.

“The strategies … were developed by a desire to maximize family participation, staff well-being, and safety for all,” they said.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the key strategies:

1. “Grab-and-go” meal distribution

Districts located grab-and-go sites strategically to reach the most families.

Most of the districts made adjustments in locations and distribution times as participation shifting and to increase staff safety.

Districts leaders also said it was key to maintain constant contact with nutrition staff to address health and safety concerns.

2. Boosting family participation

The most common methods to publicize meal programs were emails and postings on district websites.  Schools also made phone calls, sent text messages and used social media.

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Other districts spread the message through municipal networks, such as mayors, churches and libraries.

Because not all families were tech savvy or connect, some district founds phone call to be the most effective. District leaders also said it was crucial to provide details about the specific food families would receive.

3. Collaborating with the community

District leaders felt they fed more families when they worked with restaurants, community organizations, foundations, social service agencies, food pantries, food distributors, farms, and local government.

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These partners stepped in when the schools were unable to distribute meals. Community organization also provided refrigeration and other essentials.

4. Encouraging flexibility and resiliency

Food service leaders told researchers they “got into a groove” as they made adjustments as conditions changed.

This flexibility also boosted staff confidence in their ability to respond quickly to new challenges.