Sarasota's safety net for feeding children over the summer break is scheduled to begin distributing food Monday as area schools stay closed through April 15 because of to the coronavirus outbreak.
Parents are able to pick up meal packs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at one of the five drive-thru locations provided their child is in the car, according to the school district.
“We feed them during the summertime and this is not unusual for us, because almost 50% of our kids are on free and reduced lunch. So we've become accustomed to feeding them when school is not in session,” said Caroline Zucker, Sarasota school board chair. “It's key. It’s key for keeping our kids healthy.”
Children 18 and under will be provided with lunch and breakfast regardless of whether students qualify for free and reduced lunch, Zucker said.
Each location will also provide a food backpack -- a bag filled with healthy food -- courtesy of All Faiths Food Bank, who started its Campaign to End Summer Hunger two months early to help feed families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We simply had to accelerate the summer feeding program because kids are out of school now,” All Faiths CEO Sandra Frank said. “We need to be prepared today to feed kids through the school year into the summer. So you plan for the worst case scenario. You just have to as a good steward.”
All Faiths Food Bank’s 100 locations, which includes partnerships with other food banks in the area, has shifted its volunteer guidelines to adhere to the social distancing guidelines set in place by President Donald Trump on March 16 that any gatherings with more than 10 people should be limited.
Frank said the nonprofit has suspended large groups of volunteers in favor of a core group of veteran volunteers.
The food bank has also shifted its distribution model by boxing up food for its patrons rather than its usual client choice model that allows patrons to shop along a line of food. Beginning Monday, each box will contain enough food to feed a family of four for a week.
“The idea (with including a week’s supply) is that families don't have to come daily to get food. They're reducing their own risks with exposure to the virus, and they'll have nutritious food for a week,” Frank said.
The boxes are modeled off the USDA nutrition guide MyPlate and will include fruit, vegetables, protein and a grain. At this time there is no plan to include eggs or milk in the boxes.
Families in need can pick up food at any of the nonprofit’s 100 distribution sites, which can be found at www.allfaithsfoodbank.org/foodfinder. The organization’s website urges those who feel sick to refrain from visiting the mobile pantries and send a friend to help instead.
Frank said the food bank is closely monitoring what the community needs and plans to add new distribution locations within the next week.
All Faiths Food Bank serves as a nonprofit organization with a mission to feed the hungry in Sarasota and DeSoto counties, not just during a global pandemic. The food bank does not act as a backup plan for people who might look elsewhere as grocery store shelves begin to empty due to stockpiling.
“This is for families in need and I would ask the community, to be compassionate and to think about their neighbors in need. Not everyone has the capacity or the access to food. Not everybody has the funds to go stock up for two to three weeks,” Frank said. “This is a time for us -- an opportunity for us -- to come together and take care of each other.”
School closures through April 15 have led Sarasota County School officials to attempt to identify students who may need to check out a laptop computer or internet hotspot should public schools be transitioned to virtual classes to prevent the spread of the virus in classrooms.
In a press release on March 17, the Florida Department of Education encouraged schools to “operate virtually or through other non-classroom-based means to the greatest extent possible to implement distance learning.”
Parents and guardians of public school students to complete a brief online survey that can be found at www.sarasotacountyschools.net/Page/3492.
The Department of Education also announced state K-12 testing is canceled through the end of the school year. Parents will have the option to have their children repeat the same grade next year, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
"Our number one priority is keeping our families safe and healthy and stopping the spread of this virus. These actions will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Florida. I will continue to work with the Governor, Superintendents, Florida College System and the State University System to do whatever we can to protect our children, our families, and our communities,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.