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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1321

Distribution of School Meals During COVID-19 Quarantine: Suggested Best Practices for Food Service Personnel

  • Jennifer Shukaitis, MPH, Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
  • Cara Cuite, Assistant Extension Specialist, Department of Human Ecology
  • Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science

While schools are closed during the COVID-19 quarantine, most are still providing meals so that children do not miss out on meals that they would normally be served. Although sit-down meals are prohibited due to social distancing requirements, providing school meals on a “grab-and-go” basis can also prove challenging as social distancing measures require that people do not come in direct contact with each other.

These best practice suggestions for maintaining safe social distance while distributing school meals is based on guidance from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as anecdotal reporting of successful approaches currently in use. These guidelines are intended for use by schools and school food service personnel in preparing and distributing school meals during COVID-19 school closures.

While this document primarily focuses on safety and risk of COVID-19, it also touches on food safety and prevention of foodborne disease.

Preparing School Meals

While meal preparation may be consistent with normal school operation, special care must be taken to maintain the health of food service workers.

Distributing School Meals

Distributing school meals during school closures may present several logistical challenges for food service staff and families. In addition to the information immediately below, please see the following section for options in delivery models.

Remember that some foods require time and temperature control for food safety (TCS). These foods may also be referred to as Potentially Hazardous Foods (PHF). Any distribution systems for school meals modified due to COVID-19 will need to ensure appropriate temperature control to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Models of Meal Distribution

Consider methods that shorten client service times and limit unnecessary face-to-face interactions.

Outdoor Distribution

Food distribution in outside areas is highly preferable to inside areas. Whenever possible, designate an outside area as the pick-up location, such as a parking lot or lawn of a school, park or other non-profit location. This will allow space for social distancing.

Meal Delivery

For districts where families have a difficult time getting to a local school, particularly for rural districts where traveling to a central location may not be feasible for families, enlisting the help of the district’s bus drivers and using bus routes to drop off meals at or near students’ homes is a good option.

    Example: Old Bridge, NJ school bus drivers and food service employees are using a combination of buses and vans to deliver school meals to various distribution sites and directly to students’ homes who are unable to travel to distribution sites.

Consider other delivery options to bring food to students’ homes, such as school faculty and staff delivering food to students’ homes, if feasible.

Indoor Distribution

If an outside area is not an option, choose a large inside area of a non-profit location that allows space for social distancing, such as a gymnasium or cafeteria. This is the least preferable option.

Improving Access to School Meals

School closures may present a barrier for many families in accessing school meals. However, certain strategies can help to ensure that more families receive food during this time.

Special Considerations

Some families have particular risk factors to consider, including allergies, other special dietary needs, and food insecurity.


Communication is key to ensuring that school meals are distributed safely. All COVID-19 safety measures adopted should be communicated to those picking up food to ensure that protocols are followed.

Other information to be communicated includes

Rules, regulations, and guidance regarding the distribution of school meals during COVID-19-related school closures may vary by state. Contact the entity that oversees school meal administration in your state with specific questions.

For More Information


May 2020