Lessons That Matter: Strategies to Translate Pandemic-Era School Meal Innovations to Common Practice

Background. The “Lessons That Matter: Strategies to Translate Pandemic-Era School Meal Innovations to Common Practice,” identifies insights learned by child nutrition program staff about operating school meal programs during the pandemic. This Lessons learned through this project are translated into practice and policy recommendations for stakeholders at the national, state, and local level to understand what school meal program staff learned during the COVID-19 crisis.

Methods. This project leveraged data previously collected by research teams in two prior studies across Maryland and North Carolina. These prior studies interviewed local child nutrition program leadership and staff for the dual purpose of understanding new practices that were implemented during the pandemic and elaborating perceived benefits of USDA waiver flexibilities. The current report summarizes secondary analyses of this previously-collected data with a focus on how lessons learned may influence future operations.  Findings on lessons learned fall into five categories: (1) communication across multiple stakeholder levels, (2) staffing and professional development, (3) partnerships, (4) preparedness and infrastructure, and (5) financial structures.

Practice Recommendations. Practice recommendations are provided for operational changes that school meal operators can implement now and for future school closures.

  1. Utilize multiple avenues of communication to promote school meals programs with increased engagement among families.
  2. Explore innovations to staffing structures and roles and provide incentives to retain staff and boost morale.
  3. Cultivate relationships with a variety of school and non-school partners that serve families to streamline efforts, access resources, and better reach families.
  4. Develop a formal blueprint for handling operations during unanticipated school closures and identify infrastructure changes that will need to be made prior to unanticipated school closures.
  5. Implement flexible financial structures to allow school meal professionals the ability to implement necessary program changes and address pandemic-related challenges while making the program easier to operate during typical times.

Policy Recommendations emerged for policy changes to address barriers that led to inefficient responses that are not within the direct control of schools or state agencies.

  1. Permanently establish child nutrition program waiver authority and other flexibilities during emergency situations.
  2. Provide flexible financial structures such as healthy school meals for all and additional funding as soon as possible to ensure that school meal programs remain financially solvent.
  3. Establish waiver flexibilities as permanent options during anticipated school closures (e.g., summer) to make it easier for children to access meals.
  4. Increase access to no-cost, healthy school meals for all through both federal and state-level policies to streamline administrative processes and bring the benefits of school meals to more children; examples include expanding the Community Eligibility Provision or eliminating the reduced-price category.