In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 emergency caused the abrupt shut down of schools and many early care and education sites across the country. These closures not only disrupted classroom learning, they limited access to school meals, a vital source of nutritious food for many children. Prior to COVID-19 related closures, United States Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition Programs served nutritious meals to 29.4 million children per day . Three quarters of these meals were served to children eligible for free or reduced price meals, based on their family income . The closures of schools in addition to other wholesale outlets have severely impacted food producers. Inflexibility and lack of diversity within consolidated food supply chains and some supply chain partners left producers with abundant product that they could not move amidst dramatic market losses.
In addition to or as an alternative to leveraging federally funded programs, communities developed their own ways to respond to and support children and families. Many schools used their distribution infrastructure and reach to become hubs for families and communities to access food beyond school meals. By partnering with philanthropic organizations, city governments, and non-profit community organizations, many schools became central distribution points for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, local food boxes, or grocery bags- all broadly referred to as “food share programs.” Communities also used the opportunity to prioritize purchasing from local food producers, especially farms that have historically not had access to institutional markets and federal supports, including small farms and farms owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), to supply these programs.
Communities with existing farm to school initiatives and multi-agency collaboratives were able to quickly pivot to provide urgently needed food access while re-investing local, philanthropic, and federal dollars into a local food economy reeling from pandemic disruptions. It is precisely because of community-scale networks and ongoing partnerships (rather than large scale or consolidated efforts) that initiatives highlighted in this brief were able to provide hundreds of thousands of pounds of locally produced, fresh, and healthful foods to community members impacted by COVID-19 and the associated economic crisis.