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K-12 feeding in the COVID era: 4 options and how to prepare for them

July 8, 2020
Culler Middle School Cafeteria

K-12 schools across the country are carefully considering how to resume instruction for the coming 2020-21 school year while protecting students and families from COVID-19. How to feed students during the school day is one of many complex factors being weighed.

There are currently four commonly discussed feeding options, each of which has inherent advantages and challenges for school staff and students. Some provide more distancing but may require more adaptation of school facilities. Others attempt to strike a balance between the strictest safety guidelines and the ability of schools to accommodate changes.

Below is a summary of these options along with some key equipment considerations schools and districts will have to take into account as they solidify plans for an exceedingly unusual fall.

  1. Classroom service & dining

Classroom service and dining is likely the most effective option at reducing interaction among groups of students and workers but perhaps the most labor intensive for cafeteria staff.

Under this scenario, food is prepared and/or packaged in the cafeteria and delivered to classrooms, where students consume their meals.

This option is one that would likely require the most changes in cafeteria processes and equipment.

What kind of food will be delivered? Will it all be in individually packaged portions? How will that be accomplished? Does the kitchen have enough capacity to prepare and package food? Is there adequate storage for food packaging?

Transporting food is another potential hurdle in this feeding scenario. How will food get from the cafeteria to classrooms? Will existing carts suffice? Do they have adequate space to carry all the necessary food? Are there food safety and temperature concerns to consider?

ExpressLine from LTI might be an ideal solution. Purpose-built to support mobile feeding needs, these portable counters hold prepackaged foods at safe hot or cold temperatures. Heavy-duty casters make it easy to transport food and safely serve students from a classroom, hallway or other remote location.The ExpressLine Compact version provides even easier portability but with enough capacity to feed an entire elementary school wing from one unit.

  1. Cafeteria service & classroom dining

A second feeding option involves bringing students to the cafeteria, potentially in shifts, to retrieve food and then returning them to their classrooms to eat.

This scenario introduces more possibility of exposure among student groups but may require fewer accommodations for the bulk transport of food.

Still, schools must consider several questions. How will students get food from the cafeteria to their classrooms? Will trays or bags/boxes be used? If trays are selected, is there adequate equipment to properly sanitize them after use?

With students going through the cafeteria line, schools must also consider how to limit risk to staff. How will workers be protected from potential exposure to hundreds of students? Are existing food shields adequate?

LTI can help provide protection from exposure with shielding designed for retrofitting on existing equipment, including a buffet conversion kit that allows a fast conversion from self-service to attendant-service and free-standing vertical protectors for cashier counters.

  1. Modified in-cafeteria service & dining

Some schools may also consider a modification of traditional in-cafeteria dining — one that sees students eating in the cafeteria as usual but with enforced social distancing. Given space limitations, this change will likely necessitate more meal times in order to accommodate smaller groups of students.

Since this option involves what is likely the highest risk to both students and staff, many of the process and equipment considerations focus on hygiene and sanitation concerns.

Tables, seats and other surfaces will need to be sanitized between each group of students. Does the cafeteria have adequate staff and appropriate supplies to perform cleaning quickly?

Since meals will need to be served over a longer period of the day in order to support smaller groups of students in the cafeteria at once, is there adequate capacity in food holding equipment to keep enough food at safe temperatures for longer periods? Does switching from breakfast to lunch pose challenges with less transition and recovery time?

LTI’s QuickSwitch technology comes in handy at such times because of its ability to switch between temperatures in an hour or less, providing rapid flexibility in time-pressured situations.

Schools may also need to consider the very function of their cafeteria serving line equipment.

Limited capacity may also mean shortened meals times to allow for more groups to come and go. Serving lines will need to move efficiently so that students can get their food and eat in the allotted time. Does the layout and function of serving lines and cashier stations support rapid movement of diners through the cafeteria?

  1. Take-home meals

Some school districts may consider shortened school days or alternating attendance programs in order to limit the number of students in school at once. In either case, districts may provide students take-home meals for afterschool hours or non-attendance days.

Many districts have been offering take-home meals since schools closed in March and have worked out the kinks of such a program. But they could still run into challenges if a take-home meal program is expanded or must run concurrently with an in-school feeding program.

Considerations could include capacity — is there enough cooking, holding and prepping space to prepare both take-home and in-school meals at once — and distribution. How will take-home meals be safely distributed to students at school?

Grab ‘N Go Carts from LTI are a possible option that can be positioned at convenient pick-up locations, allowing students to grab a bag as they leave school buildings or classrooms.

Balancing the protection of students and staff with the functional requirements of high-volume feeding is no small feat for districts, but LTI is here to help. Contact us today for more ways we can help support the changing nature of feeding students in the COVID era.