Would needy children still get free lunch if coronavirus closes schools?

Thousands of students depend on their school for daily meals, child care.
A federal government program provides free lunches in schools that qualify. Some educators worry that needy children might go without nutritious meals if schools close because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A federal government program provides free lunches in schools that qualify. Some educators worry that needy children might go without nutritious meals if schools close because of the coronavirus pandemic. [ STEVEN SENNE | Associated Press ]
Published March 11, 2020|Updated March 11, 2020

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As coronavirus threatens to shutter Florida schools, educators have spent time exploring how to keep kids learning from home.

But what about the other things that schools also offer children?

For many students, school provides meals and child care services that working families rely upon to make ends meet. A sudden cancellation could throw delicately laid plans into disarray, particularly if parents who have no sick leave and no family network cannot make alternative arrangements.

It’s hard enough during regular school breaks.

“We know that when there’s a crisis, families that are low income are hit the hardest,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit that works to eradicate poverty-related hunger. “This is something that schools really should be thinking about if they decide to close.”

Related: If coronavirus closes Florida schools, how will kids learn?

The issue is not a small one in the Tampa Bay area, where nearly 400,000 students are enrolled in public schools. And school systems have only just begun exploring their options.

Hillsborough County has 123,000 children, or just about two-thirds of the total, who receive free or reduced-price meals at school. In Pinellas County, it’s about 50,000 students, or slightly more than half of those enrolled. In Pasco County, nearly 41,500 kids, or just over 54 percent of the student population, get subsidized breakfast and lunch.

In some schools, of course, the situation is more concentrated than in others.

Pinellas County, for example, has schools such as Melrose Elementary where more than 90 percent of the student body eats free. And it has others were more than 85 percent of those enrolled pay full price, such as East Lake Middle School Academy of Engineering.

Such disparities, which occur across the state and nation, have some observers wondering whether school districts might consider creating different actions to the virus and other emergencies based on what students can and cannot afford.

Families also count on schools to watch after their children, not only during class hours but also before and after.

In Pasco, about 5,200 children attend after-school programs and another 4,500 participate in spring sports. Pinellas has about 7,300 students in after-care offerings. Hillsborough has about 12,000 children in its HOST system, with another 3,800 in related programs, and another 5,000 students in spring sports.

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District officials in all three counties said they did not expect to keep those activities running if schools close. The possibilities for food services appear more doable, they said.

Shaylia McRae, acting chief of schools in Hillsborough County, said discussions are ongoing with the district’s Student Nutrition Services department, with the hopes that the meal program can continue even if schools have to close.

“We will have to map it out,” McRae said. “We are looking at models that already exist, like the summer feeding program.”

During the summer, districts take meals out to identified locations in the community and hand them to people who show up.

“We are working with the state to determine what our options would be for feeding students in the event that we must close a school or all our schools,” said Steve Hegarty, Pasco schools spokesman.

FitzSimons, of the Food Research and Action Center, said school districts in other states have asked for and received waivers from the federal government, so they can take the meals they usually provide in cafeterias out to other sites for distribution. That would be an important step in Florida, as well, she suggested.

She also expressed hope that the U.S. Department of Agriculture might consider allowing schools to provide multiple meals to individuals at a single time, so families can stock up in advance of a school closure. There’s also some talk of getting families limited debit cards to use for food during emergencies, she added.

Related: Education Week: Shut Down by Coronavirus, Schools Scramble to Feed Students

“I am very concerned about what happens when kids lose access to free and reduced price meals,” FitzSimons said. “We would encourage school districts to sit down and think about a plan before they close.”

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

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