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ALACHUA County – The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people are living their lives. It has changed the way people work, with many now working from home—or suddenly unemployed. It has changed the way people interact and socialize, with most states issuing “stay at home” orders and social distancing rules. Entertainment time has changed, no more live sports events, music, in-theater movies or socializing in bars or restaurants, no more gatherings of more than 10 people. People have isolated themselves and families to try and control the spread of the virus. This has also affected family life and how children are educated.

On March 17, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that schools will be closed through April 15 due to COVID-19. That date was then extended to May 1, which means the new target date for reopening schools is Monday, May 4.

Florida education officials called for each school district to close its doors and move classes online. Despite the recommendation from some officials, Florida Governor DeSantis said it’s possible each county might return to school at different times. This change and uncertainty about reopening has uprooted the traditional education system, putting additional burdens on everyone. Teachers have transitioned their lessons to a remote learning platform, which is available to parents online or through paper packets. If families do not have a computer or device to access online, Alachua County schools are loaning some equipment to help families. If they do not have an internet connection, they can request written lesson packages by contacting the school or teacher. The schools also send out emails to keep parents aware of what is going on.

Healthy Eating Important in Learning Process

Parents are becoming more involved in the teaching process, home schooling their children with the teacher’s guidance. They now have to take command of making sure their children complete the assigned work. For working parents this puts an additional strain both in finding the time to watch over their child's education, and in many cases, if they were working during what was school hours, they could depend on their children getting fed at least one meal during the day. For lower income families, this was often a necessity. Now with high unemployment, many more families have found their income shrink.

Across the nation, schools serve a bigger purpose than just education in children's health and development. Food is important to a child's health and ability to focus. Since children spend an average of six to seven hours of their day in school, lunches need to be provided and every school has a kitchen staff to feed the children. In addition, 38 million Americans live below the poverty level and an equal amount are barely above that, living paycheck to paycheck, and for these children and their parents, school lunch programs are vital.

Federal and state governments have programs to provide funding and resources to schools throughout the nation. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is one of several federal resources. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.7 million children daily at a cost of $13.8 billion last year. The Farm to School program matches local farms to school to provide fresh produce for healthier meals to students. Other grants and resources are also available to help schools meet the demand to feed over 56 million school children.

School Meal Distribution Sites

In Alachua County, 18 percent of the population is under 18 and the poverty level is 19.8 percent, which puts a heavier burden on the 47 schools in the district that participate in the Community Eligibility program to provide student meals. When COVID-19 closed all the schools, all school age children lost those lunchtime meals served onsite at the schools. Knowing how important these food programs were to the students, school districts throughout the country scrambled to find ways to get the food to the students. Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) devised several methods to continue to provide meals in a safe way while following the COVID-19 restrictions. The USDA waived the requirement that all meals had to be eaten on campus and the ACPS set up drive-through meal deliveries for families in need to get food for their children. They also expanded the meal program to include breakfast for the following day.

Children 18 years old and younger can receive free breakfast and lunch from ACPS Food and Nutrition Services Department. The meals will continue to be distributed the entire time while the schools are closed. The ACPS has set up 76 distribution sites throughout Alachua County. That includes schools, community sites and parks, and even stops along school bus routes that serve a large proportion of high-needs students.

Mondays through Fridays, children receive a cold, grab-and-go lunch for that day and breakfast for the following morning. The cold lunches consist of a sandwich, fruit, crackers, cheese stick and a drink. According to Caron Rowe, a Food Service Specialist with the school board, they decided on cold lunches for safety and preparation ability. “We received a lot of messages from concerned parents about the safety and possible transmission of the virus. By using a drive-up method, they simply drive up, stay in their cars and receive the whole meal in a plastic bag.”

Staff wear face masks and gloves at all times. The prepackaged food allows for less contact with the food and also makes it easier for food service staff to prepare and assemble. “We are used to preparing cooked meals in an onsite kitchen, so this was a learning experience as we went,” said Rowe. “Currently we are serving over 20,000 meals per day at the various locations.” Although much of the food is prepackaged for safety reasons, they are also working with some of the farms in the Farm to School program as well. “We have purchased 3,100 pounds of fresh blueberries from the Clay Ranch Berry Farm that will be added to all the meals for the next three weeks,” said Rowe. Although the schools are currently closed until May 1, that date could be extended. “If it gets extended, we will still be here for the kids as long as we get the supplies. Our staff cares about the students and have big hearts,” Rowe said. “We will be here until life returns to normal and the kids are back in school”

At the 32 schools and eight community sites, meals will be distributed from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday through Friday. At the 15 bus drop-off locations, times will vary depending on the stop and route. Families are urged to check the schedule for bus stop distribution. The district has also received permission from the federal government to provide meals to students to eat over the weekends. Those meals will be given out to students on Fridays. The meals are for all children from 0 to 18. Children do not have to be enrolled at a particular school or program to receive meals. They also do not have to be eligible for free and reduced-price meals during the regular school year to take advantage of the program. If they receive 24-hour notice, the school may be able to provide formula for babies.

More information about the program can be found at https://www.yourchoicefresh.com/, which also contains a list of all available pick up sites and times. Parents can also call their child's school for details and to arrange to get lesson packages.

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