Addressing Food Insecurity through a Health Equity Lens: a Case Study of Large Urban School Districts during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Gabriella M. McLoughlin, Julia A. McCarthy, Jared T. McGuirt, Chelsea R. Singleton, Caroline G. Dunn, Preety Gadhoke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reduced access to school meals during public health emergencies can accelerate food insecurity and nutritional status, particularly for low-income children in urban areas. To prevent the exacerbation of health disparities, there is a need to understand the implementation of meal distribution among large urban school districts during emergencies and to what degree these strategies provide equitable meal access. Our case study of four large urban school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic aims to address these knowledge gaps. Guided by the Getting to Equity (GTE) framework, we conducted a mixed-methods study evaluating emergency meal distribution and strategy implementation in four large urban school districts (Chicago Public Schools, Houston Independent School District, Los Angeles Unified School District, and New York City Department of Education). We gathered data from school district websites on (1) meal service and delivery sites and (2) district documents, policies, communication, and resources. Using qualitative coding approaches, we identified unique and shared district strategies to address meal distribution and communications during the pandemic according to the four components of the GTE framework: increase healthy options, reduce deterrents, build on community capacity, and increase social and economic resources. We matched district census tract boundaries to demographic data from the 2018 American Community Survey and United States Department of Agriculture food desert data, and used geographic information systems (GIS) software to identify meal site locations relative to student population, areas of high poverty and high minority populations, and food deserts. We found that all districts developed strategies to optimize meal provision, which varied across case site. Strategies to increase healthy options included serving adults and other members of the general public, providing timely information on meal site locations, and promoting consumption of a balanced diet. The quantity and frequency of meals served varied, and the degree to which districts promoted high-quality nutrition was limited. Reducing deterrents related to using inclusive language and images and providing safety information on social distancing practices in multiple languages. Districts built community capacity through partnering with first responder, relief, and other community organizations. Increased social and economic resources were illustrated by providing technology assistance to families, childcare referrals for essential workers, and other wellness resources. Geospatial analysis suggests that service locations across cities varied to some degree by demographics and food environment, with potential gaps in reach. This study identifies strategies that have the potential to increase equitable access to nutrition assistance programs. Our findings can support (1) ongoing efforts to address child food insecurity during the pandemic and (2) future meal provision through programs like the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option. Future research should further examine the rationale behind meal site placement and how site availability changed over time.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)759-775
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Urban Health
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • food insecurity
  • COVID-19
  • urban schools
  • severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)
  • Pandemic
  • Coronavirus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Urban Studies


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