Dedication, innovation, and collaboration

A mixed-methods analysis of school meals in Connecticut during COVID-19




COVID-19, Pandemic, Emergency Meal Programs, School Meals, School Food Services, School Nutrition Programs, Community Collaboration


When school buildings across the U.S. closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many school districts mobilized to establish emer­gency school meal programs to operate outside the setting of school cafeterias. The aim of this conver­gent mixed-methods study is to (a) examine the structure and rates of participation in the spring 2020 meal programs in Connecticut, and (b) obtain insight about the challenges, strategies used, and lessons learned during this time by food service leaders. We obtained quantitative data from the Connecticut State Department of Education and district websites, and qualitative data from nine one-hour interviews with school food service lead­ers. Although the National School Lunch Program provides meals at standard price, reduced-price, or no cost based on student household income, all emergency meals during spring 2020 were provided at no cost following the school closures resulting from the COVID-19 public health emergency dec­lara­tion. The average number of meals distrib­uted from March to May 2020 was significantly lower than the overall participation rates (i.e., paid, free, and reduced-price meals combined) prior to COVID-19. However, participation rates in April and May 2020 approached those of free and reduced-price meal participation a year earlier. Four key action themes emerged from the interviews: (1) tailor the program to community needs and resources; (2) identify strategies to facilitate partici­pation; (3) develop partnerships to coordinate school, municipal, and community efforts; and (4) establish programs that encourage resiliency. The interviewees also saw this event as an oppor­tunity to improve the perception of school meals. Inno­vations developed during the spring 2020 school building closures provide a road map for best prac­tices for the 2020–2021 school year and beyond.


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Author Biographies

Katherine Connolly, University of Connecticut

Graduate Student, Neag School of Education

Molly I. Babbin, Middlebury College

Undergraduate Student; Summer Intern, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Sarah L. McKee, University of Connecticut

MA, Graduate Student, Department of Human Development and Family Sciences

Kevin McGinn, Norwalk (CT) Public Schools

Senior Director of Dining Service

Juliana F. W. Cohen, Merrimack College and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

ScD, Associate Professor, Department of Public Health and Nutrition, Merrimack College; and Depart­ment of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Sandra M. Chafouleas, University of Connecticut

PhD, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, Neag School of Education, University of Connecti­cut, and Co-Director, University of Connecticut Collaboratory on School and Child Health

Marlene B. Schwartz, University of Connecticut

PhD, Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Connecticut, and Director, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Logo for COVID-19's Impact on the Food System



How to Cite

Connolly, K., Babbin, M., McKee, S., McGinn, K., Cohen, J., Chafouleas, S., & Schwartz, M. (2021). Dedication, innovation, and collaboration: A mixed-methods analysis of school meals in Connecticut during COVID-19. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 10(2), 11–27.