Published: September 2023

Journal: Nutrients

Authors: Harper K, Bode B, Gupta K, Terhaar A, Baltaci A, Asada Y, Lane H

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The emergency school meals program provided free meals to children in the United States during COVID-19-related school closures. This scoping review aims to synthesize the existing qualitative empirical evidence published between March 2020 and January 2023 on the operations and utilization of emergency school meal programs during the pandemic. Qualitative, US-based peer-reviewed literature was collected from three sources: (1) parent review of all federal nutrition assistance programs; (2) systematic search of four databases; and (3) manual search of grey literature. Identified scientific articles and grey literature reports (n = 183) were uploaded into Covidence and screened for duplicates and inclusion/exclusion criteria. Our final sample included 21 articles/reports, including 14 mixed methods and seven qualitative-only projects. Articles spanned all U.S. states. Articles had similar research questions to understand school meals and/or general food access during COVID-19, with an emphasis on long-term policy implications. Hybrid deductive/inductive analytic coding was used to analyze data, utilizing domains from the Getting to Equity Framework (GTE). GTE considers multi-level factors that influence nutrition behavior while centering more equitable pathways to improve nutrition security and reduce adverse health. Findings were sorted into two categories: operational challenges during the pandemic and solutions to address inequities in school meal distribution during and after the pandemic, particularly during school closures such as summers or future emergencies. Key challenges related to supply chain issues, safety, and balancing families’ needs with limited staff capacity. Programs addressed equity by (a) reducing deterrents through federally issued waivers and increased communications which allowed the serving of meals by programs to families who previously did not have access, (b) building community capacity through collaborations and partnerships which allowed for increased distribution, and (c) preparing and distributing healthy options unless barriers in supply chain superseded the effort. This review highlights the importance of emergency school meal programs and provides insights into addressing challenges and promoting equity in future out-of-school times. These insights could be applied to policy and practice change to optimize program budgets, increase reach equitably, and improve access to nutritious meals among populations at highest risk for nutrition insecurity.

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