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Pasco schools give families food relief during coronavirus closures

Hundreds of meals are served in minutes as seven sites open for bagged breakfast and lunch distribution.
Cassie Miller, Assistant Manager of Food and Nutrition Services, hands out pre-packaged meals on Monday at Fivay High in Hudson. The school was one of seven to serve as meal distribution sites for Pasco County students. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

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HUDSON — It’s been a hectic time for Debbie Tucker.

Her 9-year-old twins miss their school friends and are antsy to return to classes that aren’t happening. Her husband awaits word of whether his job in air conditioning will last much longer.

She had high hopes that the federal government might offer some financial relief in this time of COVID-19, and worried that the precarious plan wouldn’t come through, leaving needy families in the lurch.

“Today I had to go get money out of my piggy bank to go get milk for them to have cereal,” Tucker said, pointing to her daughters in the back seat of her car. “Over the weekend, we used up what we had.”

So she was more than grateful for the free bagged breakfasts and lunches that Pasco County school district workers prepared and delivered starting Monday morning as part of a statewide, federally funded effort to make sure children remain fed even as their campuses are closed.

In Pasco, more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Sometimes, that food is their only sustenance each day.

So when the governor announced that schools would be shuttered for weeks beyond spring break, concerns quickly rose about how those children would be fed. Negotiating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state won a waiver allowing schools to distribute the meals outside cafeterias to anyone 18 and younger, much like occurs each summer.

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

Districts across Florida launched their grab-and-go systems on Monday. They proved a welcome lifeline.

Hundreds of meals were served in just the first minutes after the service opened. By the end of the two hours, the district had distributed 4,653 meals.

Heather Province was among the first few cars in line at Fivay High School, one of seven meal sites in Pasco. Though the service officially began at 11 a.m., she and others started 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 to help keep money flowing. But money is short, she added, so being able to rely on the schools for support made her feel “really lucky.”

That was a sentiment echoed among many in the Fivay High queue, as they waited to get to the front of the line where masked and gloved food service workers handed out a lunch of yogurt with graham dippers, hardboiled egg, fruit, vegetable and a drink, and a breakfast of a cereal bar, banana bread, fruit, juice and milk for the following day.

Every child in the car could get one of each. A few cars drove off empty-handed, to return later with their previously absent children.

Prepackaged breakfast and lunch meals were distributed Monday to Pasco County students at seven school sites. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

Cheryl Victor came with her two granddaughters, ages 7 and 8. Their mom, Victor said, was spending her time getting chemotherapy treatments before going to work in a hospital.

In her front seat was a bag of groceries donated from a local church.

“It’s traumatic enough just to have cancer,” she said, referring to her daughter. “Then to have all this going on. She lives with a mask on and gloves. But she’s got to pay the bills. And this helps.”

Heather Fawcett arrived with six children in her van. She said all the adults in her home had lost their jobs during the virus scare, and their savings had been tapped significantly.

She also welcomed the food relief provided by the schools amid what she called the financial “strain.”

“It’s a great thing, especially for people who could not get anything,” Fawcett said, mentioning the grocery shelves picked over by “people who went on a rampage.”

Despite all the personal problems that families faced, they approached the workers pleasantly and full of appreciation. They thanked the staff not just for the food, but also for taking the time to serve them.

The workers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I just want to be able to take care of our kids,” said Tracy Cardoza, who left her four children at home so she could distribute the bagged breakfasts. “It was a good idea.”

And she also planned to return through Friday, until the district switches to a new model where it brings food into communities on buses rather than having people come to the schools.

“Enjoy,” Cardoza told the children as she handed over the bags. “We’ll be here all week. See you!”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

• • •

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