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Tampa Bay schools see long lines for free meals. Who’s eating them?

Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco have given out nearly 5 million free meals during the COVID-19 shutdown, sometimes in surprising locations.

RIVERVIEW — Warren Hope Dawson Elementary School backs up to a subdivision where houses cost as much as $400,000.

Yet, on a single day in April, the school gave five days’ worth of free breakfast and lunch to 965 children.

It’a sight that has become emblematic of the COVID-19 health crisis. Families around the nation are lining up at their neighborhood schools for lunch meat and white bread, child-size cartons of milk and those strawberry cookies you only find in the cafeteria. They’re the kind you dunk in your milk, principal Derrick McLaughlin said.

Related: What comes first: virtual school or your job? Florida teens are juggling.

Traffic at the feeding centers has grown steadily over the last six weeks, with approximately 5 million meals served in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties combined. Hillsborough, by far the biggest operation, accounted for nearly 4 million of those meals, dispensed at more than 400 schools and bus stops.

To put those numbers into perspective, 20 million free school lunches are served throughout the nation on a typical school day.

Cars lined up on Nixon Road outside Carrollwood's Cannella Elementary School shortly after 9 a.m. on April 15 so parents could pick up free breakfast and lunch for their children as school remains closed during the coronavirus shutdown. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Is food insecurity worse than we thought it was? Or are trips to school giving children and adults a chance to address other COVID-19 issues, such as loneliness, anxiety and a need to connect with something familiar?

The experts say it’s all those things.

• • •

Pine View Elementary, in suburban Land O’Lakes, was not even a designated feeding site when the Pasco County School District launched its COVID-19 nutrition program.

But, recognizing a need to serve Central Pasco, the district added Pine View to the list. It turned out to be Pasco’s busiest site, with more than 1,100 students served each of the last three weeks in April.

In Pinellas, demand was strong at Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas Park and Southern Oak Elementary in Largo — surpassing St. Petersburg’s Fairmount Park Elementary, which has a poverty rate of 88 percent. One of the most visited centers in Hillsborough was Barrington Middle in wealthy FishHawk Ranch.

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“We have heard from our members who are trying not to pass any judgment right now because there are so many newly unemployed families struggling with loss of income and trying to maintain their home and their car, in the hopes that they can get back on their feet once society reopens," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the national School Nutrition Association.

McLaughlin isn’t surprised that Dawson Elementary is a popular place on Wednesdays, when Hillsborough has its weekly food distributions.

He used to be principal of nearby Summerfield Elementary, which has a 70 percent poverty rate and is not a meal center. Families can visit any school, not just the one their child attends.

Beyond hunger, he said, “it could be a sense of safety and security. People see the faces they are familiar with and they feel safe, because these are the people who take care of their kids every day.”

Derrick McLaughlin, principal of Warren Hope Dawson Elementary in Hillsborough County, enters student data into an app before parents can receive a week's worth of breakfast and lunch. In addition to satisfying hunger, he says, the meal distributions ease anxiety by bringing families to a familiar place. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

It’s almost a party atmosphere at Dawson from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with music playing and teachers in a rainbow of face masks converging on cars to log students’ names. Last week, to strains of Macarena and other upbeat tunes, they waved hello and passed bags and loaves of bread through the windows.

The first person families see is “Little Coach,” a physical education teacher whose real name is Jackie Wilson. She’s married to another physical education teacher, who everyone calls “Big Coach.” But neither can be called Wilson, McLaughlin explained, because there is a secretary in the office named Mrs. Wilson.

“Everybody knows Little Coach,” McLaughlin said. She hands each driver a number, designating how many children are in the household, and the process continues from there.

The food varies from county to county and has changed over the weeks, from freshly made chicken sandwiches and burgers early on, to pre-packaged items like crackers and cheese, applesauce and cereal. Lately, there has been more fresh produce in the bags as new relationships have formed between the schools and Florida growers.

Student nutrition employee Aidalisse Rivera prepares bags of food for distribution at Warren Dawson Elementary in Riverview. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Thomas Mantz, executive director of the nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay, is among those who say the demand points to bigger problems in the Tampa Bay area. “We always say that it’s never just the child that’s hungry,” he said.

In the 10 counties that Feeding Tampa Bay serves, Mantz estimates there were 625,000 people with food insecurity when the unemployment rate was at 2.8 percent. When the state’s unofficial rate climbed to 4.4 percent in March, he said the number of hungry people logically grew to 900,000.

Meeting this need in a time of pandemic has presented a variety of challenges. In communities outside the Tampa Bay area that were hard-hit by the coronavirus, food service at schools was interrupted when workers fell ill. Some schools organized "A" and "B" teams in their kitchens and kept them far apart so they would not have to close down the entire operation if one worker tested positive.

In Hillsborough, food services manager Shani Hall said her department had one such scare. They closed the kitchen and part of the school for cleaning while the employee was tested. “We are fortunate to have a production kitchen,” she said. Meal bags were prepared in that off-site kitchen and delivered to the school, to be served out of district vehicles.

Workers were in short supply when people 65 and older were required to stay home, even from essential jobs. That’s one reason Hillsborough shifted from daily to weekly feedings, with teachers volunteering at some schools to help with the rush.

And there were suspicions of abuse on April 15, when so much food was going out the door that some schools ran out. Close to 1 million meals were served in Hillsborough that day, with some people visiting multiple schools. The district responded by building the app it now uses to record student information. Immediately, the numbers began to come down.

Demand has continued to drop in recent weeks, now that some parents are back at work. But the need is far from over, and Mantz predicted the summer will be difficult for many families.

At Clair Mel Elementary on Wednesday, Maria Victoria Portillo arrived with an old-fashioned shopping cart, which she filled with provisions for her three children.

Speaking in Spanish, the 30-year-old from El Salvador said she worked in a restaurant before the shutdown. She hopes to go back, but “they have not called me yet,” she said. Her husband, a construction worker, is in the same position.

“At least I know that no matter what happens,” Portillo said, “my children will have something to eat.”

From left, Ivalisse Torres, Lizvet Ordaz and Tammy Zettles prepare to hand out snacks outside Sligh Middle School on April 20. "Light snack Monday" helped families adjust when meal service was changed from daily to weekly. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
• • •

In normal times, school lunch programs can count on revenues from families who pay for both the standard meals and a la carte items. Some have catering businesses as well.

But the current service relies completely on reimbursement from the government.

Zoey Massee, 8, left, and her sister Grace Masse, 6, of Hudson, receive fresh corn at Chasco Elementary and Middle schools in Port Richey on Wednesday, Each family attending the "pop-up" event received 12 ears of corn donated by Scotlynn Sweet Pac Growers in Belle Glade. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Hall said she is confident that Hillsborough will be reimbursed.

Others are not so sure, and the national association predicts some programs will dip into their reserves. The organization recently asked Congress in a letter to authorize $2.6 billion “to mitigate a portion of the estimated, significant financial loss that school nutrition programs have and will continue to experience.”

There is also uncertainty about what families can expect in the summer, as classes are likely to happen in a virtual format. School districts are working on their summer feeding programs, with Pasco organizing various “pop-up” food distributions as the plans fall into place.

“It will be larger than what we traditionally do," district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. "But not exactly what we have now.”

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