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Nonprofit mobilizes to replace lost school meals across Tampa Bay area

Feeding Tampa Bay opens 17 drive-through feeding stations across Tampa Bay as up to two-thirds of students in Hillsborough miss out on free school meals.

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TAMPA — Tina Buckner’s fiance was laid off last week from his job as a metal fabricator because of the coronavirus. He was told not to come back.

Now, the stay-at-home mom is scrambling to find work and struggling to feed her sons, Hunter, 6, and Grayson, 2.

“We need help, mostly with food,” said Buckner, 29. “I can’t even afford wipes and the shelves are empty.”

Before the coronavirus crisis, Hunter would get a free breakfast and lunch at school. But his was not one of just 23 Hillsborough schools giving out bagged breakfasts and lunches Monday on what would have been the first day of school after spring break.

That’s in a district where free meals are provided every school day to about two-thirds of students in the nation’s eighth-largest school district. It’s a similar story in Pinellas and Pasco counties where only a small number of schools were providing meal services.

To try and plug that gap, Feeding Tampa Bay on Monday opened 17 meal centers across the Tampa Bay area and prepped to give out about 4,000 meals. The venues operated like a drive-through with families able to pick up either lunch or dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast for every kid in their car. It comes at a time when food pantries have reported donations of unsold food from grocery stores have fallen by as much as 80 percent after the coronavirus prompted panic buying.

Related: Coronavirus panic-buying robs nonprofits of groceries they hand out to the needy

Hillsborough is planning to give out meals at another 100 schools next week after getting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to run a program similar to the one it does during the summer, said spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

Tina Buckner is pictured with her 6-year-old son, Hunter, just after collecting meals and groceries at the Feeding Tampa Bay distribution center where staff and volunteers handed out free kid's lunches and tomorrow's breakfast at a drive-through meal center.
Tina Buckner is pictured with her 6-year-old son, Hunter, just after collecting meals and groceries at the Feeding Tampa Bay distribution center where staff and volunteers handed out free kid's lunches and tomorrow's breakfast at a drive-through meal center. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Buckner, who lives in Egypt Lake-Leto, was among a handful of families that drove Monday to Feeding Tampa Bay’s headquarters, a huge warehouse and distribution center off Adamo Drive.

Lunch bags included a ham and cheese sandwich, a carton of milk, green beans and pieces of apple. For breakfast, there was cereal, apple juice and cheesesticks.

“This is a very big help; you have no idea," Buckner said.

Gauging the level of need is still very much trial and error. More than 100 meals were given out early Monday in Dover, in rural East Hillsborough. But only a handful of families turned up at the Jeff & Penny Vinik Family Boys & Girls Club at Winston Park in Clair Mel, where a high number of low-income families live.

In Pasco, where more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, only seven schools were handing out lunches. More are expected to open.

Hundreds of meals were served in just the first minutes after the service opened at 11 a.m.

Heather Province was among the first few cars in line at Fivay High School, arriving more than a half-hour early.

“I’m very scarce on food right now,” said Province, who had 3-year-old son Cole in tow. “And I’m currently pregnant, so I don’t want to be going out.”

She said she’s been working at a home for adults with disabilities. But money is short, she added, so being able to rely on the schools for support made her feel “really lucky.”

Volunteers and staff at the Feeding Tampa Bay distribution center in Tampa handed out free kid's lunches and tomorrow's breakfast at a drive-through meal center, part of 17 centers they're opening up in response to the pandemic which has forced all area schools to close.
Volunteers and staff at the Feeding Tampa Bay distribution center in Tampa handed out free kid's lunches and tomorrow's breakfast at a drive-through meal center, part of 17 centers they're opening up in response to the pandemic which has forced all area schools to close. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Feeding Tampa Bay, which provides food to more than 500 community organizations across a 10-county area, partnered with the Department of Agriculture to get subsidies for the school meals. At some sites, it also provided meals of Salisbury steak with beef gravy, mashed potato, peas and carrots for parents that were prepared and packed at its Trinity Café facility.

“We don’t break even on it; we lose money doing this but we get some reimbursement, which is helpful,” said Executive Director Thomas Mantz.

Like Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas are expected to start providing meals at more schools in the coming weeks. As those schools come online, Feeding Tampa Bay will switch more resources to other areas of need, including meal deliveries to assisted-living facilities and homes for seniors where communal dining has been stopped or restricted to protect residents.

Ileana Vasquez brought her son Brian, 7, to the feeding station in Clair Mel.

She said it’s been difficult to manage as a single parent. She works from home as an administrative assistant. With her son’s school closed, she has to buy more food at a time when her instinct is to keep her and her son indoors.

“It’s hard for me to budget for food and bills,” she said. “It’s terrible now, It’s chaotic."

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