Supporting low-income families during the pandemic: Can emergency feeding programs effectively provide food security during school closures?

Erin Love, Dr. Becca Jablonski, Marion Kalb

Fort Collins, CO

In early 2018, we leveraged a Tipping Points grant from FFAR to measure how food policy changes in Denver, Colorado’s largest city, might impact farmers, ranchers, regional communities, economies and environments throughout the state. Denver’s mayor adopted a goal of sourcing 25 percent of all institutional purchases from Colorado by 2030, and the city’s local food policy council recommended the integration of a broader set of values-based procurement standards set out under the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). GFPP encourages institutional food procurement that considers five values areas: local economies, nutrition, valued workforce, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. To achieve these goals, the City of Denver assembled a broad coalition of institutional purchasers (including hospitals, the jail and other large buyers of food) to consider adopting the GFPP procurement standards.

As part of our study, we focused our modeling efforts on understanding the impact of proposed procurement changes within one of the largest buyers in the city’s coalition, the Denver Public School District. One of the reasons we focused on Denver Public Schools is that research consistently shows that the National School Lunch Program is associated with significantly lower rates of food insecurity for households with children, as well as improved diet quality and academic performance. The District plays an important role in feeding low income children—63.4 percent of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

When Denver Public Schools closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had to make a quick decision about how to adapt its feeding program to ensure low income students remained fed. Increased federal funding to feeding programs and the relaxation of many U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that were previously required to support meal reimbursement meant that the District had significant flexibility in its approach; however, little federal guidance on best practices was provided, and schools are not experts in crafting effective food policy.

The Denver Public School District includes 162 schools, but it initially made the decision to concentrate emergency meal service provision for kids at 24 school locations due to limited resources. However, the District quickly realized that it was only reaching about 25 percent of the free and reduced-price eligible children that they usually feed. Accordingly, the District decided to add 36 delivery locations (drop off sites where families can get meals), which were strategically determined based on where they would reach the highest rates of low-income students. These delivery locations have helped to increase the number of students taking advantage of the meals, but Denver city officials note that they are still not serving all the students who usually take advantage of school meals programs, an issue that they are working to address. As of late June 2020, Denver Public Schools reported serving approximately 6,500 meals per day (Monday-Friday), compared to 44,984 lunches per day served pre-COVID-19 (note that the lunches usually served includes all students, not just those who are low-income). Further, Denver Public Schools was doing a significant amount of scratch cooking (approximately 60 percent) prior to the pandemic. During the pandemic, it has shifted to largely shelf stable meals, which travel better, so that families can pick up food for multiple days. This shift raises questions as to whether the relaxation of some of the federal requirements have negatively impacted the nutritional quality of the food served.

As we were already in the process of modeling the supply chains to schools, we used additional funds provided by FFAR to begin modeling the tradeoffs associated with different resource allocation decisions to support emergency food service provision to Denver households with K-12 age children. To do this, we will collect data from low-income households with school-aged children in Denver. Working closely with Denver partners, we hope to collect food purchasing and acquisition information to understand how households’ food purchases and acquisitions shifted during the pandemic, and if this impacted dietary quality of household foods.

To learn more about the ongoing project, please visit our project website:

Courtesy of We Don’t Waste, Denver, CO


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