13 ideas for a successful grab-and-go meal program amid COVID-19 disruption

Photograph courtesy of Cherokee County School District

COVID-19 has abruptly changed how school districts are providing meals for students. As school closures become commonplace around the country, schools have switched to grab and go as well as meal delivery to make sure students still have access to nutritious food while participating in remote learning. Here are some tips and best practices from operators on how to make sure kids get fed while also keeping staff safe. 

1. Create common ground

It all begins with your team, says Walter Campbell, Charleston County School District’s nutrition services director. Campbell has been making sure his team in Charleston, S.C., stays motivated and ready to feed kids. 

“To make the whole process go smoothly, you need to start with a team you trust that realizes we are all in this together,” he says. “If we had a hashtag, it would be #weareallinthistogether. The team I get to work with everyday has students at the heart of their work. They are the hope our children need in the midst of chaos.” 

At Cincinnati Public Schools, Director of Student Dining Jessica Shelly says that reaching out to community stakeholders along with other departments in her district has been essential to getting the grab-and-go feeding program off the ground with such short notice. 

cincinnati public schoolsPhotograph courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools

“Good communication within the school nutrition department, school district, vendors, community partners, and students we serve opens possibilities for nutritious, fresh food for students during these unprecedented times,” she says.

2. Share best practices with other districts 

Don’t forget to also reach out to other districts in your area to share best practices. “Talk with your fellow directors from other districts—you don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Campbell says. “I am part of a group of 14-plus school districts in South Carolina. We call ourselves the Palmetto Group. We are emailing or talking with each other daily.”

3. Reach out for donations

Although Cherokee County School District in Canton, Ga., can’t accept food donations or volunteers to help out with distributing meals, the district has included donation links on its website where users can make a financial donation to help keep the nutrition program going as it works to feed students during school closures. 

4. Partner with local nonprofits

Local nonprofits are also a good resource to tap into. At Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Austin, Texas, the district partnered with the nonprofit Austin ED Fund to set up the Austin ISD Crisis Support Fund, which allows community members to submit donations that go toward expanding the reach of AISD’s meal program.

“During this time of quick coordination, we have seen our entire community come together,” says Executive Director of Food Service and Warehouse Operations Anneliese Tanner. “Through contributions to the Austin ISD Crisis Support Fund, parents and caregivers will also receive meals at the various pickup locations, as well as meal packages to help continue food security through the weekend.”

5. Send a resource list to local food pantries 

One of Sodexo’s main goals during this pandemic is to make sure it doesn’t miss kids who don’t know about their feeding sites. To help get the word out, some of the Sodexo-managed districts in the Bay Area are providing a list of their meal sites to food pantries so that if a family comes to the pantry looking for meals, they can locate the feeding site closest to them. That way, families “have an easy reference,” says Sodexo District Manager Martha O’Rourke. 

6. Take advantage of your transportation department  

Some Sodexo districts are also reaching more students by using the school’s bus drivers to deliver meals to families that call ahead and say they can’t make it to one of the feeding sites. Along with reaching more kids, this method also has the added benefit of helping keep the school’s transportation department employed. 

7. Create a digital map of feeding sites 

Another way to help spread the word about feeding sites is to create an online interactive map. When Michigan shut down all schools in the state, the state’s Department of Education launched an interactive map that shows parents and kids where their closest feeding sites are and provides additional information such as site hours. 

8. Serve student favorites

During this stressful time, some K-12 operators have found that comfort food and meals that were beloved by students before the COVID-19 outbreak have transitioned well to the grab-and-go style of service. 

A sub sandwich served alongside fresh fruit, cold vegetables and a choice of milk has been popular at Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says Zoe Crego, assistant program manager for nutrition education and training. “This option has appealed to students as it’s a familiar comfort food that they love, along with fresh produce that helps to keep them healthy.”

At Charleston County Schools, the team has found success with a menu item that mimics a popular lunch option found on grocery store shelves. 

“Our version of a Lunchable has been a hit with students,” Campbell says. “We plan on adding additional menu items over the next 10 days. A make-your-own pizza kit is up Wednesday.”

9. Include instructions for perishables

When including perishable items in its grab-and-go offerings, the Metz Culinary team at Erie School District in Erie, Pa., also sends along notes informing kids and parents on how to best store and consume the menu item. 

“Right now, we're packing a breakfast bag and lunch bag and putting the milk on the side,” says Jenny Johns, Metz Culinary Management General Manager for Erie School District. “If we do have a menu item in there, maybe like a yogurt or cheese stick, then we're making sure to put a note in the bag that says that they need to refrigerate within 30 minutes and consume within three days.”

10. Contact families with food allergies 

For students with allergies or other dietary restrictions, the team at Erie School District is making sure each feeding site has some meal alternatives. To get a better idea of how many students with dietary restrictions will be picking up meals each day, the team reached out to parents beforehand.

“We put a call out to every single parent to ask if they will be coming in for a student meal so that we can make sure they have it and [to learn] what school they will be picking it up at,” Johns says. “We always do keep some things on hand. So in case we have a lot of students that don't eat pork, and our meal sites are only having pork on the menu, we'll make sure we have an alternate available.”

11. Create a short training video for staff 

To help its nutrition staff understand how to properly and safely serve meals through curbside pick-up and bus drop-off, the team at AISD shot quick training videos for both types of meal service.  The videos walk through every step needed to serve the meals and provide a visual for staff to understand the unique safety measures that apply. 

12. Centralize food prep 

Instead of having teams prepare meals at each of the meal site locations, the nutrition team at Erie School District has switched to producing the meals at only two locations and then delivering them to the other meal sites.

“We're centralizing the preparation of the food as to limit the number of people that are exposed to the public,” Johns says. “We are also trying to have some of our employees, if they can, work at home and limit how many people are in the building of the production areas that we have.”

13. Move to home delivery only 

Other school districts have gotten rid of curbside pickup altogether, offering only home delivery of meals to minimize face-to-face contact between staff, students and families. Ithaca City School District in Ithaca, N.Y., for example, now sends out a digital order form each week, which  parents fill out and submit ahead of meal delivery.



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