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Supporting Student Nutrition in Virtual and Hybrid Settings: Lessons from Addressing the Digital Divide

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Raquel Dailey, Beth Holland, & Violet Ford

The Learning Accelerator

Key Points and Takeaways

  • Virtual learners face barriers in accessing whole-child supports, including school nutrition programs, due both to policy and logistical constraints.

  • Leadership teams should assess, establish, and invest in infrastructure to support and address this challenge.

  • Prior efforts to bridge the digital divide offer insights into how leaders can navigate nutritional challenges in virtual and hybrid settings, including leveraging community partnerships.


Due to policy and logistical barriers, students learning virtually – whether in full-time online or hybrid programs – often lack access to adequate whole-child supports. This is particularly true for food and nutrition programs (i.e., school meal programs). There are currently no federal or state funding programs or guidelines that support providing meals for families and students who have chosen to learn in online environments. This gap poses a serious innovation challenge for school systems wishing to offer these options equitably to all students who desire and require them.

Leadership teams can, however, take lessons learned from solving a recent, multifaceted equity challenge faced during the COVID-19 pandemic: the digital divide. Faced with a complex problem lacking clear solutions or precedents, leaders sought to equip students and their families with sufficient connectivity and devices, ensuring continuous access to learning.

By drawing upon the successful strategies implemented to bridge the digital divide, leaders can take inspiration to develop comprehensive approaches to meet the unique whole-child needs of students in the dynamic landscape of virtual and hybrid learning. This insight highlights the steps that system leaders and policymakers can employ, capitalizing on the lessons learned from increasing access to devices and high-speed internet. Utilizing a framework grounded in three key components – Policy, Community, and Infrastructure – leaders can implement strategies to immediately address nutritional needs alongside broader student wellbeing.

The Importance of Student Nutrition for Student Learning

An extensive research base underscores the pivotal role proper food programs play in supporting learner wellbeing, from meeting basic nutritional needs to alleviating stress and anxiety, thus fostering emotional and psychological preparedness for learning.

Understanding the Policy Landscape and History: An Insufficient Solution for Virtual and Hybrid Learners

School meals have traditionally been a core component of brick-and-mortar schools. With the emergence of virtual and hybrid alternatives, students and their families have the flexibility to select non-traditional learning environments that may better meet their needs. However, there are currently no federal or state guidelines that support providing meals for families and learners who have chosen to learn in an online environment.

From 2020 to 2021, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds were allowed to be utilized to ensure uninterrupted and safe meal service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This involved covering emergency operational costs and targeted reimbursements for local administrative fees associated with Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). Additionally, funds were allocated from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to support associated school meal expenses, including a grant for enhancements in food security-related infrastructure. However, as the pandemic subsided, these supports were withdrawn. Students engaged in remote instruction during the 2023-24 school year were no longer eligible for nutrition funding unless they participated in ongoing face-to-face learning such as after-school programs or summer initiatives. Other federal funding sources exclusively provide meals for virtual learners when "planning for or implementing activities during long-term closures," not for regular virtual or hybrid instruction.

Policy barriers are reinforced by logistical ones. Virtual schools face additional challenges in accessing federal nutritional program funds such as the Community Eligibility Provision and Child and Adult Care Food Program, since they often lack the physical locations required to operate these initiatives. The absence of a physical presence also hinders collaboration with local meal providers and the utilization of vendor partnerships, as meal deliveries cannot be coordinated to a specific location. While some locations like food banks may offer meal services, limited transportation access is a common challenge for virtual and hybrid learners. Overcoming these hurdles requires innovative solutions to ensure that virtual learners have adequate access to nutritional services.

Applying Lessons Learned from Addressing the Digital Divide

Since the first National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) in 1996, school and system leaders have taken a multifaceted approach to address the digital divide that has included federal policy, community partnerships, and investments in infrastructure. During the pandemic, these efforts expanded exponentially.

Federal Policy: Initially, there were few federal policies in place to ensure digital access at home. However, education leaders leveraged various resources and federal initiatives to create innovative ways of providing internet access and devices to virtual students. For example:

  • E-Rate: This long-standing policy to connect schools and libraries made an allowance to help offset the costs of connecting students at home.

  • Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF): This federally funded initiative was used to help eligible schools and libraries address the issue of digital access during the pandemic and was established as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

  • Digital Equity Grants: In 2024, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will announce new funding programs to help K-12 systems continue to address digital equity in their communities.

State Policy: Even before the pandemic, states began working on their plans to ensure that all students could both access the internet and devices as well as develop the literacy skills to effectively use them. Since the passage of the Digital Equity Act, all states are now required to do so. Given the diverse needs, geography, and populations of each state, policies vary widely as illustrated by the four examples below.

  • Connecticut: During the pandemic, Connecticut’s governor created the Everybody Learns initiative to purchase and deploy more than 140,000 student computers and 50,000 internet connections to keep students learning. The state also developed a broadband mapping hub to track the availability of connectivity and has been a leader in ensuring access to high-speed internet and devices.

  • Maine: To address the varied needs of learners across the state, education organizations partnered with libraries and other community groups, including regional and tribal broadband partners, to form “Connectivity Hubs” that provided access to internet, devices, and digital literacy skills.

  • North Carolina: The Department of Public Instruction collaborated with higher education, workforce development agencies, libraries, and schools to expand internet access, including through free public Wi-Fi locations, and engage students and families in digital literacy programs.

  • Washington: By creating a partnership between counties, schools, libraries, and institutes of higher education, Washington state has been able to expand public Wi-Fi access, promote enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), increase hotspot and device lending programs, develop a statewide device recycling and upcycling program, and identify opportunities to address digital literacy through the State Board of Education.

Community Partnerships: For over a decade, stakeholders ranging from local businesses and community organizations to government officials and federal agencies have collaborated to identify and enact solutions to address the digital divide. These partnerships have included long and short-term collaborations, joint ventures, or formal and informal agreements, allowing schools and systems to leverage the specific skills, talents, and resources of various partners. K-12 schools and systems also leveraged public-private community partnerships with local libraries, government agencies, public nonprofits, and corporate entities.

Example from the Field

Ector County Independent School District, a rural district in the western part of Texas, took an innovative approach to addressing internet access by leveraging a public-private partnership.

  • Public: To assess the digital access needs within their community, the district collaborated with community members to create an Operation Connectivity Task Force consisting of community educators, business leaders, and elected officials to solve the broadband issue for the entire community.

  • Private: The district also leveraged partnerships with community members and private internet providers to map the areas where students live to identify the internet connectivity options within the district. Leaders also partnered with Space X to utilize satellite technology and reach families located where traditional internet broadband was inaccessible.

System Infrastructure: Traditionally, district infrastructure refers to the physical spaces of buildings, classrooms, athletic facilities, libraries, and laboratories. However, technological infrastructure includes the tangible and intangible resources required to enhance teaching, learning, communication, and data management. This can range from laptops and tablets to wireless networks and learning management systems.

Regardless of whether physical or virtual, infrastructure is essential to run any school or system effectively. Whereas physical infrastructure provides students with safe spaces that promote engaged learning, technological infrastructure provides access to tools and resources that can enhance it. This is particularly important for virtual and hybrid students, especially with regard to student nutrition. To successfully implement any student nutrition program, there must be an infrastructure that supports seamless communication of services to community stakeholders as well as technology and physical spaces equipped to manage meal preparation, packaging, storage, and distribution. An investment in infrastructure that reaches students both in school and out is critical to system operations and essential for creating environments conducive to academic success.

Example from the Field

Several districts and states have adopted creative strategies to tackle the digital divide by developing new or existing infrastructure to increase access for all students.

  • Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) is a rural K-12 district in California that created a community Wi-Fi network in 2015 to ensure students could access learning anywhere and at any time. They installed nine distribution towers across the district and placed hundreds of hotspots in residences to provide free, filtered internet coverage for their learners, in partnership with AT&T, Google, and the Duke Energy Foundation.

  • In North Carolina, hundreds of school buses were used to create mobile hotspots for students throughout the state, bringing internet access directly to the students.

  • Cities and towns across the United States have used public facilities such as libraries and community centers to offer learners Wi-Fi access throughout communities with limited connectivity.

Applying Lessons Learned to Student Nutrition

While no single solution exists for all virtual and hybrid schools and systems to ensure their students have access to student nutrition, leaders can leverage what’s been learned about ensuring digital access to identify potential solutions:

  • Understand the specific policy context: Review, evaluate, and advocate for policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels.

  • Examine community engagement, partnership, and collaboration opportunities: From engaging local community leaders and food banks to partnering with local brick-and-mortar schools, libraries, or institutes of higher education.

  • Invest in infrastructure: Addressing student nutrition could also allow virtual and hybrid schools and systems to create additional in-person opportunities to strengthen student learning as well as a sense of belonging.

Taking It Forward

Leaders of schools and systems will continue to face ambiguous and complex challenges as they leverage virtual learning to offer greater choice to students as well as ensure continuity during times of disruption (e.g., weather-related building closures, student illness). Ensuring students have equitable access to nutrition services is just one of many challenges that leaders may face, and teams must be proactive in tackling this issue. As learned during the pandemic, rather than looking for a single solution, leaders should take a multifaceted approach, leveraging collaborative strategies to address policy, community partnerships, and local infrastructure in tandem.

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Raquel Dailey, Beth Holland, & Violet Ford

The Learning Accelerator

Dr. Raquel Dailey is an experienced educator specializing in qualitative analysis, with a focus on advancing educational equity. Dr. Beth Holland is a Partner at TLA and leads the organization's work in research and measurement. Dr. Violet Ford is an Assistant Professor at Langston University in the School of Physical Therapy and specializes in qualitative research with an emphasis on equity and fostering a sense of belonging.