DADE CITY — Half of Pasco County's students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch and breakfast. During the school year, most have access to two subsidized hot meals a day.
But what happens when school lets out?
Eight Pasco County Rotary clubs are banding together to deliver food to 400 families this weekend in an effort to keep little bellies full during winter break, which runs from Wednesday to Jan. 11.
"A few weeks in between the school sessions is a long time if your stomach is growling," said Karen Streaker, president of Dade City Sunrise Rotary.
Each Rotary Club will help 50 families on the east side of the county, which has some of the highest numbers of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
In Dade City, almost 97 percent of students qualify at Rodney B. Cox Elementary School, 92 percent at Lacoochee Elementary and 81 percent at Pasco Elementary, according to the school district's most recent numbers.
"You just hope and pray that everybody will have what they need over this long break," said Cynthia Harper, Dade City Sunrise Rotarian and principal at Centennial Elementary School, where 59 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
"That's always a concern when you're in this business."
School officials helped the Rotary Clubs identify families who would benefit from the free food.
This weekend, the families will be surprised by a bag full of canned ham, instant mashed potatoes, boxed milk and canned vegetables, among other items.
The Rotarians decided to deliver nonperishables, "in case they don't have their electricity on," Streaker said.
Club members paid for the food, which a restaurateur in one of the groups was able to get at wholesale prices.
Dade City Sunrise Rotary has gathered food for other organizations, but this will be their first large delivery.
Last month, they gave Thanksgiving dinners to five families in the Tommytown area.
"It was very rewarding," Streaker said. "The kids all gathered around, there were big smiles on the mothers' and fathers' faces."
While each group does its own service projects throughout the year, this is the first time the Pasco Rotary clubs have worked together. They will continue to do so in the future, though no events are planned at this time.
Harper said she hopes the Rotaries, or other organizations, will continue to fill the gaps for children who may not get hot meals outside of school.
"I think people tend to do things like this over the holidays; it's just natural," she said. "But summer and spring break are other times communities need to look out for children."
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.