As schools across the United States have moved to online learning or hybrid models due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis investigates the responses of child nutrition administrative agencies.
“Our study aims to gather information on how states, territories and Washington, D.C., communicated with jurisdictions effectively to provide time-sensitive information on school meal programs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gabriella McLoughlin, research fellow at the school’s Prevention Research Center and at the Implementation Science Center for Cancer Control at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
None of the jurisdictions studied “executed a comprehensive plan to address [pandemic-related] food insecurity,” McLoughlin added.
She is lead author of “Feeding Students During COVID-19 Related School Closures: A Nationwide Assessment of Initial Responses,” published Dec. 8 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Understanding jurisdictions’ approaches to meal provisions is critical to current and future emergency planning to help address food insecurity better, limit disease transmission and prevent health disparities, particularly among at-risk populations, McLoughlin said.
Jurisdictions were assessed on the comprehensiveness of seven criteria in crisis communication with internal and external stakeholders. Among the criteria were mentions of school or meal provisions in emergency declarations, references to meal provisions in school closure announcements, school meal sites and emergency meal service implementation guidance.
Results showed that most jurisdictions mentioned school meal provisions in school closure announcements (76.4%), provided easily interpretable information and/or maps about meal sites (57.9%) and included detailed information about school meal provisions in their coronavirus disease landing web pages (51%).
Fewer provided updated and comprehensive implementation guidance (39.3%), referenced school closures in emergency declarations (37.5%), had clear communication/outreach to families (21.4%) or partnered with anti-hunger organizations (11.6%).
“Our analysis gave us important insights on what could be done better in the months to come as the pandemic is ongoing and cases are still rising, increasing the need to feed students,” McLoughlin said.
“Although it is not surprising, none of the jurisdictions examined executed a comprehensive plan to address food insecurity during a pandemic of this nature and school closures of this duration,” she said.
“The initial responses to COVID-19 should serve as important foundations for lessons learned as this pandemic persists and as jurisdictions work to better plan for future emergencies. Translating this evidence into action is important, given the rising prevalence of food insecurity across the nation.”