Broward District Pauses School Meal Distributions, Expects Nonprofits To Fill Void
Broward County Public Schools has paused its weekly meal distributions, taking a weeks-long break from handing out free breakfasts and lunches to families until the first day of school as the COVID-19 pandemic rages in South Florida.
Superintendent Robert Runcie touted the 2.5 million meals the district has distributed during the pandemic in his State of the District address earlier this week, making a misleading claim that the food pickups were ongoing when they actually ended July 28.
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“Our schools became the lifeline for so many in our community,” Runcie said during the address on Monday. “We continue to distribute food from our local school sites.”
There are no meal distributions at school sites this week or next. The district will resume giving out grab-and-go food items to families with the virtual start of the new school year, scheduled to begin Aug. 19.
But the district could have kept the meals going throughout the entire summer.
School districts in South Florida have been participating in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program since the last school year ended. It’s up to each school district to decide whether to continue operating the program until the first day of the new school year, when the regular National School Lunch Program kicks in, or to take a break, according to a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“Schools that operate both the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) typically take a break between programs to prepare their facilities and train their staff for the upcoming school year. The date upon which schools stop operating SFSP is a local decision,” FDACS spokesman Franco Ripple wrote in an email.
The Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county school districts decided to keep the summer program going until their new school years begin at the end of the month.
In fact, the School District of Palm Beach County plans to expand food service next week. Meals will be available at 129 school sites instead of the current 51 locations, and there will be two time windows offered instead of one.
Broward opted for a break in meal distributions instead.
The disparity mirrors what happened during spring break in late March, when Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties continued a limited food distribution schedule, while the Broward district offered no food pickup options.
Nearly two-thirds of the district's families qualify for free or discounted school meals under federal poverty guidelines.
During Runcie's speech earlier this week, he said more than 200 district employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, “even with schools being closed and only skeletal crews on campus.” Some of the employees working at school buildings have been administering the food service program.
A spokeswoman for the district said nonprofits are filling the void. The district partnered with other local governments and community organizations to create the website Together4Broward, which includes an interactive map of locations where families can get free food in the meantime.
“During this time while our school sites are closed, our families can continue to be served free meals through Together4Broward,” district spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion wrote in an emailed statement.
A separate federal summer food program called Summer BreakSpot is still operating through the start of the school year, with 203 locations in Broward.
“When school districts do stop operating, the community-based, nonprofit Summer BreakSpot sites generally continue to operate until the day before school starts. We have been coordinating with school districts and nonprofits to ensure this occurs,” Ripple, the FDACS spokesman, wrote in an email.
A nonprofit leader in addressing food insecurity regionally argues the Broward district's pause in meal distributions creates a “vacuum.”
“There's going to be kids going hungry,” said Michael Farver, president and CEO of the South Florida Hunger Coalition. “There's just no doubt about it. It’s a fact. It's regrettable, but it's going to happen.”
Here’s WLRN’s guide for where to find free food during the pandemic.