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More than 73 percent of Miami-Dade public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
More than 73 percent of Miami-Dade public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Food-Insecure Miamians Could Be Pushed to the Brink Amid Coronavirus Shutdowns

Danielle and Jonathan Rivera ensure their family eats thanks in no small part to careful planning and kitchen wizardry. Jonathan, age 36, works at Brickell's Socal Cantina, where he makes about $20,000 a year as a cook. Danielle, who uses a cane or a walker because of a disability, is able to earn a small income on Amazon's Mechanical Turk by doing menial online tasks for about $7.25 an hour, according to a 2018 study.

Each month, the family receives about $200 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as assistance in the form of free school lunches for their 7-year-old first-grader, Emmett. Now and again, Jonathan is able to bring something — sometimes rice, sometimes meat — home from work to help fill out their meals.

They buy in bulk to take advantage of sales. They make use of customer loyalty cards to help bolster their purchases and rely on carbs to bulk up their meals.

"It's never as many fresh veggies as we'd like, especially because my husband is diabetic," Danielle says.

The Riveras, along with thousands of families, were sent into a near panic last week when Miami-Dade County Public Schools canceled classes to protect students, staff, and families and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. There was a collective sigh of relief and praise when Superintendent Alberto Carvalho also announced that any student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch could pick up breakfast and a hot midday meal at either their usual or nearest school.

"We are a poor community — 73.4 percent of our students live at our below the poverty level," Carvalho says. "Between 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., every one of our children at every one of our schools shall have the right to have access to a free, nutritious, hot meal."

Over the weekend, the federal government granted the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) a waiver allowing districts to use alternative food distribution methods following federal guidelines for "social distancing" by limiting interactions among people.

During multiple conference calls last Saturday, the department's food, nutrition, and wellness director encouraged school district officials to propose creative solutions, according to WLRN.

"We're seeing everything from distributions on the pickup loop, meals being distributed through the traditional school bus route, grab-and-go methods, drive-thru methods," Lakeisha Hood says. Hood is the director of the FDACS division of food nutrition and wellness.

"Some of the other things we're seeing is serving multiple meals in one meal-service period... We've seen some instances where there's a single meal service in a day, and both a lunch meal and a breakfast meal for the next day are provided," Hood says. "We've seen it go up to as many as seven meals — enough meals for a week — served in a meal-service period. But what we want to make sure, if you're proposing something like that, is that you have the capacity to do it."

Though the move to provide takeaway lunches has earned praise, danger might await the following week — spring break — when free lunches aren't usually provided.

"We've never done this during spring break, but it's not a loss to me that needy parents face a challenge whether it's spring break or not," Carvalho says. In the near term, he says, the district is evaluating its supplies to see whether distributing meals during spring break would be feasible and inquiring with the United States Department of Agriculture to see if it could waive school lunch requirements so as to receive reimbursement for the week's worth of meals.

Further complicating matters is that despite widespread closures, some parents might still need to report to work, potentially making meal pickups impossible.

"A lot of parents have been reaching out saying they're happy the school food programs are still happening but don't know how to get kids the food," housing activist Valencia Gunder says. "A mother who has six kids just contacted me, and she can't make it to school every day. I never had to feed six children before, so I can't even imagine."

Further complicating matters is the mandatory social distancing, preventing many organizations from distributing food in traditional manners. Gunder says some of her volunteers were afraid. This past Tuesday, Farm Share partnered with the school district to offer drive-thru fresh produce, perishables, and hygiene products to children and families.

The next distribution is set for Friday, March 20, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Goulds Park, located at 11350 SW 216th St., Miami.

For the Riveras, the hope is that their careful planning will help them get through this crisis. A recently received tax return should help, but with the potential loss of Jonathan's job or reduction in hours due to restaurant closures could push them back to the edge.

"We have a giant pork shoulder, and we'll have enough pasta as long as we don't eat a full box a day," Danielle says. "We should be OK as long as it's not more than two weeks."

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