Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Nutrition and Hospitality Management


Nutrition and Hospitality Management

First Advisor

Georgianna Mann

Second Advisor

Laurel Lambert

Third Advisor

Nadeeja Wijayatunga

Relational Format



Mississippi (MS), Louisiana (LA), and West Virginia (WV) have some of the nation’s highest rates of poverty and health disparities, reflected in high rates of food insecurity. Many of the school districts in these states have greater than 40% of students qualifying for free meals and, under community eligibility, can provide meals free to all children. School meals play an important role in addressing food insecurity in the U.S. and those were severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability of social systems (schools) to continue operations during adverse circumstances (pandemic) to ensure the sustained outcome of interest (food security) is called resilience. Hence, the pandemic spurred an urgent need to investigate the resilience capacity of the schools in continuing school meal program operations Resilience frameworks provide the opportunity to assess resilience capacity at different organization levels, but a conceptual model that incorporates the multifaceted nature of resilience and recognizes the structural inequalities in the context of school meal programs has not been utilized. Based on the existing resilience literature, we used a conceptual resilience capacity model to explore the barriers, challenges, and opportunities for improvement among the school food supply chain factors. A mixed-methods research approach was used to identify and assess the barriers and challenges faced by the child nutrition directors (CNDs) in the school districts of the three most food insecure southeastern U.S. states during the COVID-19 school closures. The conceptual model guided the development of focus group discussion questions with CNDs to understand the adaptive strategies used to ensure equitable meal provisions. We used a combination of deductive and inductive analysis for focus group discussions. We found that the major barriers and challenges faced by CNDs included food security challenges, workforce challenges, and food storage challenges. The adaptive strategies (strategies adapted to withstand the effect of pandemic) implemented by CNDs were related to employee and child safety like safety measures and training, food distribution like distribution methods and changes in menu and food preparation and utilizing workforce changes like better communication and receiving help from volunteers. The transformative strategies (anticipated long-term changes) implemented were food distribution strategies, menu changes, using newer equipment, and utilizing USDA waivers. The CNDs also noted encouraging outcomes related to the pandemic like teamwork and recognition of child nutrition programs as important by the public. The CNDs suggested certain recommendations for the development of future emergency feeding practices and policies, like communication, documentation, preparedness, and enhanced training.

Based on these findings, a 62-item survey questionnaire was developed to assess the extent of barriers and challenges faced by the CNDs for successful operations of school meal programs in the three states: MS, LA, and WV. A total of 42 CNDs participated in the survey. Major stressor events for school meal programs were reduced participation in school meal programs and reduced availability of meal preparation and distribution supplies. Most CNDs reported improved collaboration among school staff and creativity in menu development and adaptation as main encouraging outcomes of the pandemic. Ready to eat (RTE) foods were the major type of food distributed in school districts as reported by most CNDs. Several CNDs noted that they ran out of food storage to store more shelf-stable items and had to sign up with third-party distributors to make the food storage, preparation, and distribution process easier. The CNDs also reported that personnel involved in school meal programs had always adhered to the food safety regulations as outlined in the HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) but they had to implement additional COVID-19 related food safety efforts to ensure personal and food safety for both children and employees.

A 32-items survey questionnaire was distributed among parents/caregivers to explore disparities and challenges faced in accessing school meals during the pandemic. Ten questions regarding types and modes of food distribution contained same items as listed in the survey distributed to CNDs.

Additionally, the survey explored barriers and challenges related to school meal programs during the pandemic. The survey was distributed via Qualtrics and a total of 307 participants completed the survey. Fisher’s exact test showed that there was significant association between race and experiencing transportation challenges (p<0.001). A significant association was also found between race and experiencing conflicting working hours with meal pick-up times (p=0.022). There was a significant association between races and experiencing schools running out of food (p<0.001). An independent t-test was conducted to analyze the difference in the perceptions of CNDs and experiences of parents/caregivers regarding school meal programs. We found that the 307 parents (M 1.64, SD 1.59) experienced receiving significantly lesser RTE foods than what 42 directors reported [t (347) = - 4.86, p<0.001]. It was also found that the parents/caregivers (M 1.20, SD 1.39) experienced receiving significantly lesser take home foods than what directors reported [t (347) = - 1.98, p<0.049]. Parents (M .81 SD 1.25) reported experiencing picking up meals from non-school sites like food banks more than what directors perceived (M .14 SD .57) [t (347) = 3.43, p<0.001].

Overall, we were able to obtain information from both directors and parents regarding their experiences, barriers, and challenges in running or receiving school meals during the pandemic. It can be determined that the USDA waivers were a timely policy intervention that enabled school meal programs to be on a resilience pathway and ensured that once the pandemic ceases, the school meal programs can continue running on a better capacity than before the pandemic.


Food and Nutrition Services

Available for download on Thursday, August 15, 2024