In a time of mass job layoffs, furloughs, and in some areas food shortages due to panic purchasing, the role of the school nutrition professional is more important than ever to school-aged children in need. With currently more than twenty million Americans out of work within weeks, school nutrition professionals must now cast an even broader safety net, possibly the largest in school foodservice history, to meet the needs of children with food insecurity. School nutrition professionals must also do so with the added complication of school closures in response to the COVID-19 crisis, requiring they adapt their operations to provide meals in a safe “no contact” manner, and often at locations away from the schools and kitchens, with the worry of possible infection lurking in the back of their minds. These professionals also find themselves running one of the only aspects of schools still open, and consequentially provide children whose daily routines have been completely uprooted with a sense of routine, normalcy, and comfort. Rising to all of these challenges requires creativity, flexibility, teamwork, and heart. In spite all of the changes and the challenges that come with them, school nutrition professionals all across the country are quick to respond, evolve, and feed hundreds of thousands of children in their communities, whether they are enrolled in their schools or not.
Many school districts have found unique ways to conquer barriers such as safety, transportation of meals, and sheer volume. Several school districts have adapted and expanded pre-existing feeding programs, such as backpack programs that provide nutrition over the weekend while school is in session, or summer feeding programs that provide nutrition during the summer. School foodservice staff are quick to adapt from serving meals in a traditional cafeteria setting to packaging lunches, and in some cases helping deliver them. Many districts have implemented brown bag “grab and go” options, while some school districts are offering delivery services. A school district in Minnesota has enlisted school bus drivers to deliver meals to their regular bus stops. A North Dakota school district saw a sharp increase in meal participation after adding an online ordering option, and is also offering meal delivery for children who cannot access drop-off points. One school district in Minnesota, in response to growing concerns over safe social distancing practices at a “grab and go” point, found an innovative two-bag meal system to increase speed of lines to reduce bottlenecking. An Ohio feeding program turned to multiple local food providers when their regular provider could no longer meet their demand, and the community continues to donate to the program to offset the increased cost. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, the Applied Research Division (ARD) of the Institute of Child Nutrition (ICN) will provide a weekly updated list of recommended articles and resources in an effort to provide school nutrition professionals with the latest innovation and inspiration from their peers around the country.