When schools abruptly closed in March, Atlanta Public Schools organized a comprehensive meal delivery program to make sure its students had enough to eat during the shutdown. They delivered 160,000 each week, from March through the end of the school year.
Feeding more than 75% of the district’s 52,000 students is no small task. To pull it off, the nutrition department gathered all available resources. They started with their own staff. Nutrition employees at 12 of the district’s 91 sites assembled weekly meal bags with food from their foodservice contractor, Southwestern Foodservice Excellence. They deployed 10 refrigerated trucks to these schools to provide overflow storage. District employees from the facilities and security departments loaded meal bags onto district buses. District drivers traveled their routine bus routes to transport meals throughout the district.
“It was an all-hands-on-deck approach,” says executive director of nutrition, Dr. Marilyn Hughes.
Like many districts, Atlanta had to find its footing. The district started with a plan to deliver meals to students every day but soon shifted to a once-a-week model. During a two-hour window every Monday, families picked up a week’s worth of food.
During a typical school year, the district operates a total of 75 kitchens, feeding 40,000 students per day. The huge spring program—which ran through the third week in May—distributed a similar number of meals.
The child nutrition team is proud that they delivered, but it was about more than the numbers for Hughes and the staff. They engaged with families in new ways to identify foods kids would eat and to ensure that the food they delivered was stored and prepared properly.
The district held tasting feedback sessions via Zoom where they fielded comments from families and identified “fan favorites.”
“This was very effective,” Hughes says, “because [students] didn’t like everything we were serving. And that’s helpful information when you’re working with limited resources.”
For instance, the nutrition staff discovered that the burritos they were serving didn’t get high marks from students. So they started including a serving of salsa and decided to replace it with something else when they re-ordered. On the thumbs-up list from students: cheese sandwiches, frozen pizza, hot dogs, pancakes and corn with black beans. Students also like carrot sticks, especially with a side of ranch dressing.
Meal bags included instructions for storage, to help ensure that frozen foods made it to the freezer, and directions for preparing meals properly.
“With every meal we sent out, we had cooking instructions based on how to microwave,” Hughes says. “And we emphasized that all microwaves are not the same because of different wattages,” a detail that many parents appreciated.
Hughes says Atlanta Public Schools adheres to strict food safety standards. For instance, they check the temperature on random samples of bags. “If anything is wrong, that whole lot goes out,” she says. “We’re pretty stringent on that, simply because we want families to trust us for food safety.”
The district continued delivering some meals into the summer through partnerships with seven community partners. Each week, organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, Horizons Atlanta, Atlanta Police Athletic League and Neighborhood Rescue distributed 20,000 district meals per week to students.
The Atlanta Public Schools ran their meal distribution program through the USDA’s Seamless Summer Option, which feeds all children in communities where 50% or more of students qualify for free or reduced school meal prices.
To cover supplemental costs of meal distribution, the district received a $100,00 donation from Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste program to pay for cooler bags, which helped ensure that foods stayed at the proper temperature during transport. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation contributed $150,000 for additional packaging. The district also received financial support from the Dairy Alliance.
Community volunteers with Hands On Atlanta helped with a program—executed in collaboration with the school district—that distributed donated foods from the local food bank to families at the same time as meal bag deliveries. This program gave households access to groceries such as vegetables and shelf-stable, high-protein items alongside school meals.
Students in Atlanta Public Schools are learning remotely this fall. To receive meals, households place orders for five-day meal bags one week before delivery. All bags are delivered to curbside pickup locations on Mondays.
Overall, Hughes says the program has been a big success. She’s grateful for the ways the district and the community have come together to feed families. And they’re grateful for the families themselves. “We’ve really had strong public support.”