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Coronavirus closings can cause hunger. Schools, volunteers are stepping up.

School district feeding sites go a long way toward helping low-income students, but there are big gaps. Local agencies are working to fill them.
The Kind Mouse founder and CEO Gina Wilkins, known as "Mamma Mouse," left, and Stephanie Chill load bins with items to be packed into lunch bags. The organization, along with The Junior League of St. Petersburg, packed nearly 600 bags on Tuesday, each with three meals. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

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Feeding the boys is always a challenge. At times, Tabatha Daugherty has gone three days without eating, just so her sons could.

But with the growing coronavirus pandemic, everything is worse than before. And she suspects she will soon go hungry again.

The boys, ages 9 and 15, usually get free breakfast and lunch at school. And on the weekends, their dad hooks a cart to his bike so the family can bring home free food offered at the nearby community center.

Now, though, because of the virus, schools and centers are closed. Even the small food pantry down the street stopped its giveaways, Daugherty said, and none of the nine food distribution sites set up by the Pinellas County School District are close enough to get to without a car.

“This is hurting a lot of low-income families around here,” the 37-year-old mother said of the closures prompted by coronavirus. “We’re all busting our asses to make it for our kids and this just makes it a lot harder.”

Tabatha Daugherty and her two sons, Gavin, left, and Albert. [Courtesy of Tabatha Daugherty]

Efforts to fill the food gaps left by closures have sprung up across the Tampa Bay area. Volunteer partnerships are blooming. Local restaurants are offering free meals. And school districts are distributing food to students even as their campuses are closed. The Pinellas school system is working to expand its nine sites to more than 50, according to food service director Lynn Geist.

Still, parents feel panic over the logistics of feeding their kids each day until school is set to resume April 15, while grappling with other stressors brought on by the virus, like lost wages or the sudden need for childcare. Half of the county’s 103,000 public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals when school is in session.

Lots of local families struggle to afford groceries on a regular basis, said Mike Jeffries, head of the parks and recreation department in St. Petersburg, which coordinates multiple food programs for the city.

“Then you magnify it with an emergency situation like this,” he said. “We are sincerely concerned about the food needs of our community.”

A sign outside High Point Neighborhood Family Center in Clearwater says the facility is closed until March 30. Before that, Tabatha Daugherty went to the center once a week to pick up free food for her family. [Courtesy of Tabatha Daugherty]

For Adonica Frank, a 41-year-old mother in St. Petersburg, finding food in the age of coronavirus is proving difficult.

Her husband died this month from pancreatic cancer. She doesn’t work, and her son Levi, 5, suffers from developmental delays and asthma. The latter condition means he should quarantine at home, the boy’s doctor told Frank.

The problem is that the school district requires children to be present to pick up food at distribution sites. While she needs the help, it’s not worth bringing Levi along, Frank said. Even standing in line at Walmart for groceries makes her nervous: What if the cashier sneezes and she brings the virus home?

“I’m just at a loss for how we are supposed to keep our kids inside and keep them safe but also be able to function,” Frank said. “It scares me for him when I go out.”

She said she has started rationing the food she is able to buy at once. Snacks are less frequent and dessert is no longer every night, but part of a reward system Frank is using to convince Levi to do his school work, which is now online because campuses are closed.

For meals, her son uses a special plate split into three sections. Usually, there’s a different item in each space, but now his meals come with just two foods.

“I had to explain to him that, at some point, mommy may be giving him only one course,” Frank said. “He’s not understanding why I’m not filling the plate up … All I can tell him is we can’t.”

Adonica Frank and her 5-year-old son, Levi. [Courtesy of Adonica Frank] [Adonica Frank]

Jeffries, the parks and recreation director, said his staff has been taking snacks to local parks, looking for kids who are hungry. They’re also sanitizing playground equipment twice daily.

He’s offered to let the school district set up distribution sites outside the city’s 14 now-closed community centers, because that’s where kids and families are used to going to find free or reduced-price produce. The locations are close to neighborhoods, so even those without transportation can get fed, Jeffries said.

Meanwhile, The Kind Mouse, a nonprofit food program for kids in St. Petersburg, is partnering with the city police department. Details aren’t yet nailed down, but the idea is for the nonprofit to pack bags of food that police officers will distribute, said board member Donna Cothron. The nonprofit is working to find more food and volunteers to expand the program through more of the county.

The Kind Mouse and The Junior League of St. Petersburg packed 594 bags, each with three meals, for a total of 1,782 meals for children on Tuesday. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

Marcie Sefchick, a mother of one on the parent teacher association at Midtown Academy, said she hopes to see more food sites open in south St. Petersburg, where poverty levels are high. Right now, the closest location for Midtown students is Fairmount Park Elementary, which is a nearly four-mile walk from where most live, she said.

“Doing that every day to get food … it just doesn’t make sense,” Sefchick said, adding that sites should be open for more than an hour, and that kids should have the option to pick up a weekly supply if they can’t make daily visits.

Geist, the school food service director, said it’s taken some time to get the plan for distribution organized. Many school cafeterias need to be sanitized before they can be used for preparing and packing meals, which means they can then be used as pick-up sites for families.

More than 50 sites throughout the county will be ready to go March 30, she said, allowing the district to distribute about 20,000 meals compared to about 5,000 at the nine sites set to open Monday.

“We are figuring this out as we go,” she said. “The good thing is that we aren’t alone, and more and more community organizations are stepping up.”

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