News & Perspectives

Feeding Children at Home: School Meal Distribution Strategies During the Coronavirus Pandemic

School Meals

The novel coronavirus has made uncertainty a virtual certainty. However, one uncertainty we absolutely cannot afford is not knowing if we can feed our children when they’re home from school for weeks or months. Social distancing is creating an unintended consequence: many children have lost their only access to five to ten meals a week.

State school systems are acting now to provide students with their school breakfasts and lunches. Schools are among the largest institutions that distributes food to children. In 2018, the National School Lunch Program served 29.7 million meals to children daily. A number of large school districts, like those in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, remained open out of concern that hundreds of thousands of students from low-income families wouldn’t get the meals they need. Now that they and so many other school districts are closing or closed, what happens to these meals? How can we make sure students don’t go hungry?

It is well known that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has guidance for feeding children during unforeseen school closures due to a variety of circumstances like extreme weather, gun violence or collective bargaining disputes. In the event of a state or federally declared state of emergency, any School Food Authority (SFA) that is pre-approved to participate in one of the USDA’s summer meal programs can serve meals during closures at “area eligible” locations throughout the community. “Area eligible” sites cannot be schools and serve populations where at least 50% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and can be fire stations, libraries, or any other community location.

A lesser known regulation is a “congregate feeding requirement” that these meals be served in a group setting at these sites. During a pandemic, it’s clear that this requirement is antithetical to the now widespread practice of social distancing. Eating in a large group is impossible if the goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19. Recognizing this, the USDA acted on March 10th, with Secretary Perdue announcing “proactive flexibilities” so that meals may be served outside a group setting, authorizing school meal distribution.* This expanded authority extends to any state that submits a waiver application for exemption from the congregate feeding requirement.

In his remarks to the House Agriculture Committee, Secretary Perdue told legislators that the USDA must be asked for this exemption and cannot grant it blanketly, making it necessary for each state to apply on its own. Each state, could, however “preemptively assume a positive response” upon submission, according to Secretary Perdue.

As of March 16th, 25 states were approved, and as of March 17th, the USDA received waiver applications from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. All waivers are valid through June 30, 2020. For more details on schools’ expanded authority for meal delivery under these waivers, please see this USDA FAQ.

The waiver delays escalated to the national stage this week and reached a tipping point. On March 18th, a coronavirus emergency aid package was signed into law that expands the USDA’s authority, boosts food assistance funding, provides free testing for coronavirus and institutes emergency paid leave. H.R. 6201 expands the USDA’s authority to establish a national waiver for all affected states to continue programs for school meals, daycare meal programs during school closures and summarily waives the congregate feeding requirement. It’s important to note that the authority allows all school meal programs to continue, not just those schools that qualify for summer meal programs, thereby allowing schools to be included as distribution sites. H.R. 6201 also expands Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to families with students whose schools have been closed for at least five days because of COVID-19, and the amount given to them would equal the value of the school meals they’re missing. Additionally, the bill suspends work requirements for food stamp recipients.

In addition to these crucial policy changes, the bill grants families about $1.3 billion in emergency food aid. This aid includes $500 million for the Women Infants and Children program, $250 million to deliver meal packages to millions of seniors and $400 million for the USDA to purchase and distribute food to local food banks. As of March 19th, there is another House plan being drafted that may include additional food security measures.

There are a multitude of moving parts when it comes to feeding our children during the coronavirus outbreak. In the past week alone, efforts being undertaken across the country have been immense at the national and state levels. Both the public and private sectors are pursuing creative solutions to scale up school meal availability. Read on for our round up of highlighted endeavors so far:

  • On March 17th, USDA Secretary Perdue announced that the Food and Nutrition Service will work together with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to deliver nearly 1,000,000 meals a week to students in a limited number of rural schools closed due to COVID-19.
  • Small restaurants are providing free lunches for children in states like Tennessee, Maryland, Florida, Oregon, DC, Virginia, Maine, Arizona, Delaware, Texas, and likely all 50 states.
  • Burger King is offering two kids meals with any purchase made via the Burger King app starting next week, 6/23.
  • A number of initiatives are happening in Tennessee:
    • In Nashville, country star Martina McBride is teaming up with OneGen and launched a GoFundMe so a truck can deliver food door-to-door.
    • CHOW Buses will deliver food to Murfreesboro City schools.
    • In La Vergne, volunteer fire fighters and church staff will help make deliveries.
    • Clarksville-Montgomery County school system is providing free breakfast and lunch via grab-n-go at about a dozen sites.
  • In the District of Columbia, schools will be providing free lunches during the day with shelf-stable breakfast for the following morning.
  • In the State of Maryland, the state has an interactive map for all of its grab-n-go locations for free breakfast and lunch.
  • In the State of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness launched a website to help families find the closest schools where they can pick up free breakfast and lunch during school closures with more than 930 locations available.
  • In the State of New Hampshire:
    • Manchester and other districts in the state will use its school buses to deliver free breakfast, lunch and homework to students at bus stops, with bus routes available online. The state even added a few for schools that students normally walk to.
    • Barrington schools will deliver breakfast and lunch in partnership with Fresh Picks Café door to door.
    • End 68 Hours of Hunger, a nonprofit dedicated to students having food over the weekend, is adding extra food to their bags and making them available on Tuesdays, Fridays or by delivery.
  • Over twenty districts in the Portland, Oregon metro area are providing free grab-n-go meals to students, with most providing both breakfast and lunch.
  • Oakland, California schools are providing three free grab-n-go breakfasts and lunches for Monday-Wednesday on Monday, and two breakfasts and lunches for Thursday and Friday on Thursday during the weeks of school closures.
  • New Haven, Connecticut schools launched a map with food distribution sites where they are offering free breakfast and lunch pickup at 37 sites throughout the city.
  • The West Virginia Department of Education Office of Child Nutrition has worked with all 55 counties to open sites to feed students free meals this week, with more than 500 sites. In Fayette County, school buses will make a combined breakfast and lunch deliveries on their normal routes. Other counties are offering a grab-n-go style pickup, including some with drive through options.
  • North Texas school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are offering free breakfasts and lunches via grab-n-go, with some drive through locations, while San Antonio schools do the same.
  • Hampton Roads school divisions in Virginia are offering free grab-n-go meals, many of them drive throughs and using Twitter to get the word out. Alexandria City schools will be providing individual meals to go for students in addition to family meal packs.
  • Schools in the Charlotte, North Carolina area are offering pick up, drive through and delivery options for free breakfast and lunch and using Twitter to broadcast locations.
  • In Colorado’s Denver school system, many school districts have designated pickup sites via map for free breakfast and lunch, and in some cases, family food boxes.
  • The State of Michigan is offering delivery of free meals by school bus, pickup sites in partnership with local food banks, drive through pickup at schools, and allows for the purchase of additional meals for adults for $2 in some locations.
    • Fremont schools in Michigan will be delivering free lunches and snacks by school bus for those who live outside of town, while a grab-n-go lunch pickup is being offered to those who live in Fremont. The district has a hotline for more information.
  • The State of Rhode Island has set up a schedule and dozens of sites for free grab-n-go meals for students.
  • Memphis area schools in Tennessee are offering free grab-n-go breakfast and lunch, with some sites offering purchase of additional meals for adults for $2.
  • Minneapolis, St. Paul schools in Minnesota are offering free pickup for one meal a day from school buses parked at several school locations, while one school is allowing students to pick up a one-week supply of meals at their regular bus stops at other locations.
  • In the state of Maine, meals are being delivered directly to a quarantined house with household consent, Good Shepherd Food Bank is expanding its food distribution efforts,
  • Boston area schools in Massachusetts are setting up 47 free meal sites which can be found by address on the city’s website, where all pickup sites are grab-n-go style. Additionally, all approved meal sites statewide can be found on Project Bread’s website here.
  • In the Alaska’s Anchorage school district, schools are providing grab-n-go locations for free breakfast and lunch in addition to delivering at bus stop locations on multiple bus routes.
  • Columbus City schools in Ohio reported serving 837 breakfasts and 1,103 lunches on Monday of this week, compared to the usual 25,000 breakfasts and 35,000 lunches. 14 sites throughout the city are offering grab-n-go pickup for free breakfast and lunch.


For direct assistance in accessing food, please visit Feeding America’s local food bank search engine to find resources nearby.

Developed by Samantha Kelly at and Pamela Burke at

*Relevant remarks begin at 47:25.