ABSTRACT

Federally funded school meals, such as the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, can help alleviate food insecurity. Meals served as part of these programs are required by law to be modified when medically necessary, such as food allergies and special diets. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused many schools across the United States to close, but schools quickly modified meal-serving models. The purpose of this study was to understand the experiences of school nutrition professionals relative to food safety and providing special diets through modified serving models. A survey was distributed to a convenience sample of child nutrition professionals via social media recruitment and e-mails (n = 504). The survey had both closed-ended questions and one open-ended question exploring food safety and special diet accommodations. At the time of the survey, most respondents (68.3%) had been involved in COVID-19 emergency feeding for 3 to 4 weeks. Results indicated that although most child nutrition professionals did not find food safety easier or more difficult during the initial onset of COVID-19, 34.8% of respondents were not taking food temperatures for hot and cold meals during meal service and were not able to obtain (or did not have enough) equipment necessary for holding hot foods (53.0%). Most respondents (60.2%) also indicated that they were not accommodating children with special diets. Themes from the qualitative analysis indicated participants had challenges obtaining specialty items, had little time to make accommodations, or had a limited supply from vendors to accommodate these diets. To prevent food insecurity and to maintain health during the pandemic, specific solutions for at-risk populations, such as those who experience food allergies, must be considered.

HIGHLIGHTS
  • COVID-19 changed school meal distribution in the early onset of the pandemic.

  • During emergencies, modified serving models can address food safety concerns and special diets.

  • School nutrition professionals were struggling to accommodate special diets.

  • Specific solutions for populations needing special diets should be considered.

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