Objectives: To explore best practices and challenges in providing school meals during COVID-19 in a low-income, predominantly Latino, urban-rural region.
Design: Semi-structured interviews with school district stakeholders and focus groups with parents were conducted to explore school meal provision during COVID-19 from June to August 2020. Data were coded and themes were identified to guide analysis. Community organisations were involved in all aspects of study design, recruitment, data collection and analysis.
Setting: Six school districts in California's San Joaquin Valley.
Participants: School district stakeholders (n 11) included food service directors, school superintendents and community partners (e.g. funders, food cooperative). Focus groups (n 6) were comprised of parents (n 29) of children participating in school meal programmes.
Results: COVID-19-related challenges for districts included developing safe meal distribution systems, boosting low participation, covering COVID-19-related costs and staying informed of policy changes. Barriers for families included transportation difficulties, safety concerns and a lack of fresh foods. Innovative strategies to address obstacles included pandemic-electronic benefits transfer (EBT), bus-stop delivery, community pick-up locations, batched meals and leveraging partner resources.
Conclusions: A focus on fresher, more appealing meals and greater communication between school officials and parents could boost participation. Districts that leveraged external partnerships were better equipped to provide meals during pandemic conditions. In addition, policies increasing access to fresh foods and capitalising on United States Department of Agriculture waivers could boost school meal participation. Finally, partnering with community organisations and acting upon parent feedback could improve school meal systems, and in combination with pandemic-EBT, address childhood food insecurity.
Keywords: COVID-19; Childhood nutrition; Food insecurity; Latino; School meals.