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'People Are Getting Desperate': Demand Soars For Free School Meals As Closures Drag On

Dillard High School employees wait for students and parents to arrive to get packaged breakfasts in Fort Lauderdale on March 16. Broward County schools are closed because of the spread of COVID-19.
Charles Trainor Jr.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

One million emergency meals distributed.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools touted reaching this surreal milestone in a tweet on Thursday, after weeks of handing out free breakfasts, lunches and snacks to children and families affected by the coronavirus crisis.

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The other school districts in South Florida have also offered hundreds of thousands of free meals, continuing to serve as a primary source of sustenance for communities where a majority of families qualified for free or discounted food before a global pandemic devastated the local economy.

It’s now been a month since schools statewide closed their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the contagion, and South Florida school districts have seen demand for free meals increase as the closures have dragged on.

Administrators offer a few explanations for that trend: Primarily, the need is greater now.

“The longer this lingers, the more participation we’re going to get, because people are getting desperate,” said Jim Faggione, food service director for the Monroe County School District in the Florida Keys. “Money is going to dry up, and there's going to be more need.”

His district has handed out more than 36,000 meals during the closures. On the district's first day of food distribution, March 23, about 700 students picked up breakfast and lunch. Now, the daily total has nearly doubled, reaching between 1,200 and 1,300 students.

South Florida’s smallest, the Monroe district enrolls about 8,800 students and just less than half are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the state Department of Education.

In Broward County, families who typically would not need to rely on schools for food are taking advantage of the district's meal offerings, Superintendent Robert Runcie said.

“Now they've got to figure out how to stretch every dollar to continue to support their family, as many may have lost jobs, or they may be furloughed,” Runcie said, “or there's a high degree of uncertainty that they will be able to go back to a company that's still viable.”

When the Broward district first began distributing food during the week of March 30, 91,357 meals were served at 47 locations.

Last week, the district opened another four sites two days a week where families could pick up multiple days worth of meals. The number of meals given out shot up more than 40 percent from the first week, to 130,381.

The district enrolls about 269,000 students, with about 56 percent considered economically disadvantaged.

“The unemployment numbers have continued to soar in incredible fashion over the last couple of weeks, and we see a strong correlation with that and our families taking advantage of this,” Runcie said. “And so we expect those numbers to probably continue to go up somewhat.”

READ MORE: Here's Where To Find Free Food For Students, Families During COVID-19 School Closures

Also, the food has become easier and more convenient to get. At the onset of the crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly suspended key rules that govern how the federally funded meal programs can operate.

“The waivers from the U.S.D.A. came in hot and heavy,” Faggione said.

Typically, federal regulations require students to eat school meals on campus. An emergency federal waiver now allows districts to offer the meals to-go instead, respecting social distancing guidelines.

Another big change allows adults to pick up meals on behalf of students. Previously, kids had to be present. That presented a challenge for families as students are expected to be learning virtually from home during the day.

“Never before,” Penny Parham, the food and nutrition officer for the Miami-Dade district, said about the changes. “Those are unprecedented waivers. And that's made it more accessible."

The Miami-Dade district began distributing free meals immediately during the closures, which started March 16. That first week, the district gave out 222,518 meals, operating from all school locations. After the district’s previously planned spring break, food service resumed on March 30 at 50 school locations, and that week there was a slight dip in the number of meals served, to 219,506.

The week of April 6, though, the number of meals jumped more than 70 percent from the week before, to 374,565. On April 9, the district distributed several days worth of meals to last through the long Easter holiday weekend; that day alone, families picked up 200,723 meals.

Miami-Dade is the largest school district in the state, serving about 347,000 students, about 68 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.

The Palm Beach County district saw a nearly 200 percent increase from the week of March 16, when 108,082 meals were distributed, to the most recent week, when the number reached 318,216.

That district has a student body of about 196,000, with 58 percent economically disadvantaged.

The numbers have swelled in part because of heightened awareness. The districts have launched communications campaigns to get the word out about the availability of the food.

Administrators have also gotten more creative about how to get meals to families.

In the Florida Keys, where communities are spread out across the island chain and many residents lack transportation, a bus driver is now picking up and dropping off food instead of children.

Throughout the region, parents are pulling their vehicles into school bus loops. Food service workers are then taking their orders through open car windows and placing pre-packaged meals into trunks.

Districts are striking deals with farms and restaurants to bring fresh produce and hot plates of food to kids and their families.

And some locations are operating on more limited schedules while offering families enough food to last multiple days.

“We think that's a win-win,” Runcie said about four food distribution sites in Broward following that model. “It's a win for parents: That's less trips they can make. And for food services staff, those are less days that they would need to … be delivering food to the public. So we are looking at possibly expanding that.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.