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Safely Distributing School Meals During COVID-19

Safely Distributing School Meals During COVID-19

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, school nutrition programs have developed innovative ways to ensure in-person, virtual, and hybrid learners continue to have access to safe and nutritious meals. There are several COVID-19-adapted school meal distribution models that follow core mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and each model uses a unique set of model-specific mitigation practices.

School nutrition program operators can choose to use one model or a combination of models to safely distribute meals that best serve the students and families in their community. Program operators should determine and modify their distribution practices using local, state, tribal, and federal policies, to include the USDA Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waiversexternal icon, and local level of spread in each community as necessary.

Program operators can visit Operating Schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations for guiding principles and mitigation strategies to reference when schools are open, as well as Strategies for Protecting K-12 School Staff from COVID-19 and What School Nutrition Professionals and Volunteers at Schools Need to Know about COVID-19 for information on protecting the health and safety of K-12 school staff. Finally, for more detailed mitigation strategies in food service environments, program operators can reference Considerations for Restaurants and Bars.

Meals Eaten at School (In-Person Learning)

Mitigation Strategies for All School Meal Distribution Models

The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. For school nutrition employees working in meal preparation and/or distribution, potential sources of exposure could include:

  • Being in close contact (within 6 feet) with others who do not live in the same household as you, including co-workers, other school staff or volunteers, students, and families of students that are picking up school meals.
  • Touching a surface or object that has the virus that causes COVID-19 on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes.

For all meal distribution models, schools should implement several mitigation measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission. Additional detailed information on how to operationalize these key mitigation strategies in each distribution model can be found in sections below:

  • Actively encourage staff, students, and their families to stay home if they are sick, have tested positive for COVID-19, are showing symptoms of COVID-19, or have recently had close contact (less than 6 feet for 15 minutes or more) with a person with COVID-19.
  • Staff should practice frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before, after, and during shifts, before and after eating, after using the toilet, and after handling garbage, dirty dishes, or removing gloves.
  • Clean high-touch surfaces and objects between use or as much as possible. Surfaces that come in contact with food should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized (using an Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]-approvedexternal iconexternal icon food contact surface disinfectant) before and after meals.
  • Require school nutrition employees to wear masks during their shifts and breaks, except when eating and drinking.
  • Modify layouts to reduce crowding and encourage social distancing (at least 6 feet apart).
    • Prioritize outdoor seating and distribution methods as much as possible.
    • If possible, implement touchless methods for counting and claiming meals (e.g., tally sheets, barcode scanners). Provide hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for use after handling money, cards, or keypads.
  • Work with school administration, custodial or maintenance staff, and the transportation department to plan and implement engineering controls to improve ventilation and airflow.
    • Maximize fresh air flow and social distancing by prioritizing outdoor serving models as much as possible.
    • Ventilation considerations are also important on school buses and in shared vehicles that are used for meal delivery. See section titled Special Considerations – School bus drivers and bus aides for additional information.
  • Encourage students and other school staff to wear masks when they are not eating or drinking, especially when social distancing is hard to maintain (e.g., standing in line to discard food).
  • Use physical barriers in areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart (e.g., cash registers, tables, food pickup areas).
  • Serve grab-and-go individually packaged items or individually plated meals.

    Grab-and-Go Meals: Meals are picked up from a conveniently located table, cart, or kiosk and eaten in another location. For in-person learners, this could be a classroom or other common area, like the gym, cafeteria, or outdoor seating area. For virtual and hybrid learners, meals are picked up and eaten away from school.

  • Ensure the safety of students with allergies and help expedite meal choice by separating or clearly labeling meals prepared specifically for students with allergies or dietary restrictions.
  • Use disposable food service items (e.g., utensils, dishes, napkins, tablecloths). If disposable items are not feasible or desirable, ensure that used or dirty non-disposable food service items are handled with gloves and washed, rinsed, and sanitized to meet food safety requirements. Employees should wash their hands  with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after removing their gloves or after handling used or dirty food service items.
  • Set up handwashing stations or provide hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for employees, students, families, and other school staff.
  • Provide no-touch trash bins.
  • Place posters in highly visible locations (e.g., at building entrances, in restrooms) that promote everyday protective measures and describe how to stop the spread of germs by washing hands and wearing a mask.
  • Include accessibility accommodations for people with disabilities.

Distribution Models for Meals Eaten Away from School

Schools that are serving meals to virtual and hybrid learners who are eating away from school can consider the following models:

Schools should implement COVID-19 mitigation strategies outlined in Mitigation Strategies for All School Meal Distribution Models section above. Distribution models used for meals eaten away from school tend to be set up in an outdoor setting, like the school parking lot or local park, but there are some models (drive-through or walk-up) that can be moved indoors if weather or other circumstances limit a safe distribution for all students and staff. While outdoor activities are generally lower risk than indoor activities, there are still important ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like staying home when sick, social distancing, wearing a mask, handwashing, and cleaning and disinfection.

Meals should be pre-ordered or pre-set and served in bulk meal kits, boxes, bags, or packages. Where possibleexternal icon*, multiple days of meals should be served at once, ideally enough for at least one week, to reduce the number of pick-ups needed. Meals that will be eaten away from school should include food safety, storage, and reheating instructions that are easy to follow, accommodate all reading levels, and include visuals or graphics where appropriate. Also, instructions should be translated into languages commonly spoken in the community.

*Visit Child Nutrition Programs: COVID-19 Waivers by Stateexternal icon to find out which waivers and flexibilities have been approved in your state.

Drive-Through or Walk-Up Models

school worker loading meals into the trunk of a car

In this model, schools set up meal distribution outside of the school building. Students and/or their families walk up to a meal distribution table or stay in their vehicles while receiving meals. If soap and water are not readily available for handwashing, staff should practice frequent hand hygiene using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

  • Stagger meal distribution times and consider having multiple places at which meals can be served.
  • Establish a meal distribution point(s) and clearly mark with directional cues or signs.
  • Employees should wear a mask and avoid making physical contact with others. Use physical barriers in areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart.
    • Use carts and/or a large tray to pass meals to students and families or place meals directly into vehicle. Clean and disinfect carts, trays, and tables between use.
      • For walk-up meals, place meals on a rolling cart or table and then transfer to the pick-up station. Set up an extra table to increase space between persons.
      • For drive-through meals, use rolling carts or large trays to pass meals to families or place meals directly in the vehicle without contact (e.g., the trunk of vehicle, a sealed food container such as a cooler or plastic sealed bin, or in bed of pickup truck).
  • Encourage students and families to wear a mask when picking up meals, including when receiving meals from inside of their vehicle.
  • Create a plan in case weather limits outdoor meal pickup. Work with school administration to set up a point of meal service in a well-ventilated indoor or covered space, like at the school building entrance or a parking garage. Programs may also consider setting up a canopy or an open-air pop-up tent to shield staff and meals from weather.

Delivery Models

Schools deliver meals directly to a student’s home, to a bus stop, or other community location that families can safely access. Staff riding in shared vans or buses should wear masks, remain physically distanced, and weather permitting, keep windows open to increase outdoor air ventilation. These practices should also be followed, as applicable, when staff leave the vehicle to distribute and deliver meals. If soap and water are not readily available for handwashing, school nutrition employees should practice frequent hand hygiene using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. To clean school buses or other shared vehicles, see guidance for bus transit operators.

school nutrition programs deliver contact-free meals directly to a student’s home

Home delivery: In this model, school nutrition programs deliver contact-free meals directly to a student’s home.

  • Establish a drop-off location, such as a doorstep, to deliver food without any physical contact.
  • Establish a delivery time, or delivery time range, to ensure students or family will be available and able to properly store the delivered food right away.
  • If possible, alert families when meals have been delivered (e.g., ring doorbell, knock, call, text). Employees that are wearing gloves should change gloves after each food delivery and use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol often.

Food must be handled properly to prevent food poisoning. For more information on food delivery and food safety, visit Tips for Meal Kit and Food Delivery Safety and FDA Food Pickup and Delivery.

school nutrition program operators distribute meals to homes and other community places

Mobile route delivery: In this model, school nutrition program operators distribute meals in familiar, accessible community locations, which might include a library, church parking lot, or local housing authority.

  • Set up meal distribution in an area that is accessible and safe for students and families to walk or drive through. Use yard or wayfinding signs to help students and families find your meal distribution location.
  • Bring a table(s) or cart(s) to set out meals for families to collect, rather than handing meals directly to individuals to increase space between persons.
  • Make sure high-touch surfaces and objects are cleaned and disinfected between use or as much as possible (e.g., coolers used to transport food, tables, pens).
  • Consider setting up a canopy or pop-up tent, with at least one side open, to cover employees and meals, and if possible, provide disposable ponchos for rainy days.
school nutrition programs distribute meals using school bus routes and stops

Bus route delivery: In this model, school nutrition programs distribute meals using school bus routes and stops.

  • Prioritize use of existing school bus routes, rather than modifying or creating new routes, so students and families can easily access a familiar location. Consider use of yard or wayfinding signs to physically mark bus stop locations where distribution will take place.
  • Distribute meals off the bus to one student or family at a time, while maintaining 6 feet of distance.

Distribution Models for Meals Eaten at School

Schools that are serving meals to in-person learners eating at school can consider the following models:

Schools should implement COVID-19 mitigation strategies outlined in Mitigation Strategies for All School Meal Distribution Models section above. Distribution models used for meals eaten at school tend to be indoors but can be adapted for outdoor seating and distribution. When serving indoors, weather permitting, doors or windows are open to increase ventilation, and fans are used to increase the effectiveness of open windows. Do not open windows and doors if doing so poses a safety or health risk (e.g., risk of falling, triggering asthma symptoms) to children using the facility. Decrease occupancy in areas where outdoor ventilation cannot be increased.

Because distribution of meals that will be eaten at school occurs over periods longer than 15 minutes, and may occur in close proximity to unmasked students and staff who are eating and drinking and do not live in the same household, it is important for school staff and administration to strictly enforce all COVID-19 mitigation strategies outlined above, such as wearing a mask between periods of eating and drinking, frequent hand-hygiene, improving airflow and ventilation, and remaining at least 6 feet apart from others.

meals are delivered directly to the classroom and eaten in the classroom.

Meals in the Classroom: In this model, meals are delivered directly to the classroom and eaten in the classroom.

  • Use rolling carts or coolers to deliver no-contact grab-and-go meals to the classroom. If feasible, staff or teachers can deliver a meal to the student’s desk to avoid crowding.
  • Assist teachers to ensure food contact surfaces (e.g., student’s desk) are washed, rinsed, and sanitized (using an EPA-approvedexternal icon food contact surface disinfectant) before and after meals.
  • Create a plan between teachers and school nutrition staff to return reusable items to the cafeteria (e.g., students and teachers place in a bin and staff returns to cafeteria/dish room), including handling used or dirty non-disposable food service items with gloves.

Meals in the Cafeteria: In this model, meals are served and eaten in the cafeteria.

  • Image of school meals are served and eaten in the cafeteria

    Modify layouts and procedures to facilitate physical distancing among students and staff.

    • Stagger meal distribution times.
    • Set up multiple food pick-up points to facilitate social distancing, as well as multiple drop-off points where students or a staff member can throw away disposable trays, utensils, and leftovers or return non-disposable food service items For schools with limited space, consider using tables or rolling kiosks to offer meals in a nearby area, like the hallway, to set up meal service.
    • Ensure the safety of students with allergies and help expedite meal choice by familiarizing students and staff with daily menu offerings, such as providing menu options in advance or clearly labeling food items with simple menu item descriptions (e.g., “turkey and cheese wrap,” “carrot sticks,” “sliced peaches”) and other important indicators for food allergies or dietary restrictions (e.g., top 8 allergens, kosher, vegetarian).
  • Ensure food contact surfaces (e.g., lunch table) are washed, rinsed, and sanitized (using an EPA-approvedexternal icon food contact surface disinfectant) before and after meals.
  • Avoid offering any self-serve food or drink options, such as hot and cold food bars, salad or condiment bars, and drink stations. Serve grab-and-go items or individually plated meals, instead.
    • For individually plated meals, identify one staff per meal service station to serve food so that multiple staff are not handling the same serving utensils.
    • Avoid use of milk coolers or other reach-in units that students typically grab items out of. Instead, serve individual cartons or bottles with student’s meal.
  • Encourage students and staff to remain at least 6 feet apart in areas that can easily become crowded (e.g., standing in line, dish return) and while eating by providing physical guidance, such as tape or graphics on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls.