Helping Families Locate Meals During School Closures

Child eatingIn response to COVID-19, many US students find themselves without access to regular meals. These SDP Fellows quickly mobilize to connect families with local food resources.

*This post is part of a series of posts about how SDP Alumni are responding to and supporting students and communities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an unprecedented number of people into isolation. While shelter-in-place, quarantine, and social distancing orders continue to sweep across the country (and the globe), a number of families now find themselves in a place of immediate food scarcity.

The Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program serve billions of meals to the nation's students each year. And while school closures aren’t new--schools routinely close during spring and summer breaks as well as weather-related events such as snow days--coronavirus has prompted the most extreme version of school closures in decades. This is why former SDP Fellows Dave Moyer, Sabrina Yusuf, and James Riddlesberger mobilized alongside their colleagues at Hoonuit to create School Meal Finder.

“The tool started as a request from a client in Louisiana,” explained Dave Moyer, alum of SDP’s fourth cohort. Abrupt closures in this state created a need to help parents and families find schools in their area offering meals. “By repurposing one of our company’s existing tools, we were able to get something up and running within 24 hours.”

Protocols for getting meals to students in times of school closures vary. Because the subset of students who qualify for free meals is typically small, say 10 or 20% of the student body, a district might operate five out of 35 school cafeterias during a closure for all qualified students in the district. Other districts might have each school pack a backpack full of meals for the week, like in the case of spring break. Still others will have some type of pick-up scenario to keep students fed. Basically, districts are accustomed to paring down operations in times of closure to serve larger populations for the sake of efficiency.

Yet schools didn’t have much lead time for planning meal distribution for the COVID-19 closures, leaving many families scrambling to find meals for their students.

While the School Meal Finder tool quickly helped connect Louisiana families with meals, the team realized this need was hardly specific to that state. “There’s nothing like a national database displaying who is offering food right now,” Dave continued. So the team has been reaching out to states and districts to offer to feature their data in this tool, pro bono.

"As a team, we've spent a lot of time thinking about how to best communicate information about schools to students, families, and communities, both in our current roles at Hoonuit and as SDP Fellows at state and local education agencies,” added Sabrina Yusuf. “In the past year, we've been giving more thought to how we can do the same for programs and services that support the broader needs of students, and it was exciting to be able to leverage the tools that we've already developed to meet an immediate and critical need."

Meeting this need becomes even more complicated in a time of social distancing, as students require not only access to meals, but access to food in a manner safe to all involved.  Thus, districts are also exploring safe systems of dissemination, like delivery systems, that reduce travel burden and minimize contact.

It’s becoming more likely that the school year is over in many parts of the country, which makes food scarcity for students more intense as time goes on. School Meal Finder is actively adding data, and organizations can still upload their local information. If you think this tool is helpful in your area, simply add your data and the Hoonuit team will make it available in one business day.