School closures create food uncertainty

COVID-19 has closed down massive parts of the community, including area schools through at least March 27.

While those closures could mean curbing the illness’s spread, for the county’s most financially vulnerable populations, the announcement could be troubling.

For hundreds of students throughout south Santa Rosa County, school means free breakfasts and lunches. And it may be the only food those students get.

Thanks to a waiver and funding from USDA, Sodexo representative Leslie Bell said they are set to bring meals to all children younger than 18 by next week. Bell coordinates the public school system’s free meal programs.

“This is very similar to the free summer food program. We are currently in the process of waiting for approval of sites in neighborhoods,” she said.

The program has currently been approved for distribution sites at Milton High, Pea Ridge Elementary, East Milton Elementary, Jay Elementary and Berryhill Elementary with more locations coming.

These drive up distribution sites will provide a free pre-packaged breakfast and lunch for each child under 18 present at time of pick up, every day.

Even if the food is free, mobility can be a problem said assistant superintendent Joey Harrell. 

“If parents are at work, children can’t get to East Milton Elementary School if it is seven or eight miles away,” he said.

So, Bell and Harrell are coordinating to create a list of intersections within qualified neighborhoods of poverty. These locations will then be “bus stops” where food distribution can come within walking distance of those in most need.

Those sites have to be approved by USDA based on federal population demographic data.

The USDA program only covers unexpected closures. Spring Break was already scheduled for the district, so no meals will be handed out over the next week.

That is where nonprofit programs like the Weekend Food Program come in. Founder Michelle Abrams said they supplied extra food bags containing enough breakfast, lunch and snacks to support the hundreds of children in their program through the coming week.

Those families are identified through the same eligibility requirements as the federal free and reduced price breakfast and lunch programs.

“What we hope is that they are able to navigate that with what we have given them and set aside because they are eligible for additional assistance,” she said.

Feeding the Gulf Coast is also preparing for additional need. In a press release issued Tuesday, the company reminded residents that the “Find Help” feature at can help families locate resources. The program also called on healthy volunteers and donations to support efforts during this time of crisis.

Those in need of assistance can also dial 211 any time day or night for referrals to local resources that can assist with food and other financial needs.

Abrams said one of her main concerns is that the need will stretch beyond her program’s enrolled students. As businesses close their doors and cut back hours, she said there is concern that families may find themselves in a new financial crisis over the spring break.

“We are awaiting the school system to let us know how we can help,” Abrams said.

For now, the school system is trying to figure out where they can potentially set up meal distribution points in the Navarre area next week. The program sites are controlled by USDA and will only be approved if a certain level of poverty can be demonstrated in that geographic area.

Navarre’s census data makes meeting that threshold difficult, despite areas of clear need Bell said. Tuesday, she and Harrell were reviewing maps to find areas to apply for eligibility. No locations have qualified in the past.

“We are really making every effort and looking at every direction to meet the needs of these kids as much as we can at this time,” Harrell said. “We are going to push because we want to feed kids.”


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