School Nutrition Heroes: On the Front Lines of COVID-19

School meals service in Natomas, CA

To our country’s school food heroes who are leading emergency meal distribution to feed millions of kids as COVID-19 disrupts the academic year, thank you for your leadership. 

In times of crisis, first respondersdoctors, nurses, and other health care and service professionalsare called on to diagnose and treat patients, ensuring our basic human rights are met. As schools close in nearly every community across the country, school nutrition professionals are joining first responders on the front lines of the emergency response. They understand this sobering fact: in the United States, 30 million kids rely on cafeterias for their daily nourishment, and when schools close, kids go hungry.

School nutrition professionals know what food insecurity looks like because they see it in the faces of the kids they serve at breakfast and lunchtime. School meals matter every day, but the national spotlight is now shining on the leadership of school nutrition professionals. With remarkable speed and creativity, school nutrition professionals are mobilizing staff and volunteers, creating new menus, conducting community outreach, and developing new systems for distributionoften without clear guidance or notice about changing rules and regulations. In short, they are leading the largest mobilization of emergency meals in generations.

During this time of uncertainty, one thing remains clear: while our country faces big questions about recovering from the COVID-19, our school district partners are answering the call from kids nationwide who need to know how to find their next meal. We are incredibly proud and grateful to work alongside these school food heroes, and we want to take a moment to highlight a few stories of their leadership as they put their own lives on the line to provide a critical safety net through this crisis. 

Natomas Unified School District, CA

Within 24 hours of the announcement that schools would close, Vince Caguin, Director of Nutrition Services, and his team had emergency meal service up and running for 11,000+ kids who attend the 14 schools within the district. Free daily meals like the ones pictured at the top of this post are available for pick-up to all students, regardless of whether they are enrolled in the school meals program. According to Vince, “Things are moving fast—really fast. We are literally flying this plane as we are building it. It is not perfect, but it is purposeful.”

School meals service in Jefferson County, KY

Jefferson County Public Schools, KY

It is truly a team effort in Louisville, Kentucky. The school nutrition team is distributing free breakfasts and lunches to kids who are 18 years of age and younger, no questions asked, for curbside pick-up every weekday at 58 distribution sites. During the first week, the team served more than 50,000 meals! Dan Ellnor, the Assistant Director in the Nutrition Service Center, credits his entire team for making this happen, including nutrition staff, clerks, drivers, custodians, maintenance, finance, and administrators.

School meals service in Santa Clarita, CA

Santa Clarita Valley, CA 

Robert Lewis is Chief Executive Officer of the Santa Clarita Valley Food Service Agency, which serves 24,000 students in California. From their central kitchen, his team is preparing daily bagged and boxed lunches for drive-by pick-up in 11 locations. Meals are available to all kids—not just those who are enrolled to receive free or reduced-price meals. Says Robert: “Our thanks goes out to the principals, custodians, assistant principals, and sheriff’s department for joining us at the schools in order to create safe and welcoming atmospheres.”

School meals service in Gretna, NE

Gretna Public Schools, NE

Chef Sharon Shaefer is Director of Nutrition Service for the public school system in the small Nebraska town of Gretna. When the schools were ordered to close through May 1, Sharon set up a drive-by meal distribution for families to pick up free meals. She and her team are offering some of the kids’ favorites like yogurt parfaits and taco salads.



North East Independent School District, TX

The school nutrition team mobilized a curbside pick-up service for 32 elementary schools and free breakfast and lunch for students who are 18 years of age and younger. They have since expanded their program to include a mobile bus service, the Healthy Kids Cafe, to ensure they are reaching their students. For all of us, responding to COVID-19 has created an opportunity to think differently about our work, and these school food heroes in Texas are rising to the challenge.

School meals service in Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati Public Schools, OH 

Jessica Shelly is Director of Student Dining Services for Cincinnati Public Schools, a district in which 83 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price meals and one in ten students are homeless. As Jessica recently told the Washington Post, the community depends on school cafeterias for nourishment, so when the district announced the closure, Jessica and her colleagues moved quickly to set up a weekly breakfast and lunch service at 24 locations. They have since switched to serving meals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and she is developing a contingency place to distribute meals by bus should families find themselves unable to reach the pick-up locations. 

Check out School Meals That Rock for more inspiration from the front lines and head over to The Lunch Tray for ways you can help school nutrition professionals through COVID-19—from donating to causes that support their leadership to signing a card to thank America’s school food workers