Grace Community Food Pantry, Flagler County’s largest food operation for the neediest, is offering to provide substantial food aid during the coronavirus emergency for distribution to Flagler County schoolchildren who would normally get free or reduced meals at school.
“We’re prepared to go to any length, really,” Pastor Charles Silano, who runs the pantry with 80 volunteers, said today. “We’ll be able to deliver to any location that they would like in order to make it convenient for the children to get food.”
The state Department of Education ordered all public schools in Florida to remain closed until at least March 30. Thousands of schools in at least eight other states were likewise ordered closed by Friday, with many more expected to follow suit, however reluctantly.
“I understand this will put pressures on many of our families,” Superintendent Jim Tager said in a statement Friday, “but the Flagler Schools team will be working to determine what, if any services we can give our families the week following Spring Break.” The day before he’d written of the strain such a closure would place on families whose children rely on the school district for their soundest meals of the day. Some 60 percent of the district’s 13,000 students are on free or reduced lunch.
Early Saturday morning, Dottie Coletta emailed several district officials, among them Lynette Shott, director of student and community engagement, to let them know that Pastor Charles Silano, who runs Grace Community Food Pantry, and its 80 volunteers “are here to help. Since the schools will be closed for at least two weeks we wanted to offer our help with food for those children that may be in need. We do have food and would be able to get it to the children.”Coletta was writing as the pantry was preparing for its usual Saturday morning food distribution at Education Way off of U.S. 1, an operation that provides hundreds of 8-pound food bags a week to people who drive by for pick-ups every Saturday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Sunday between 1 and 4 p.m., with cars lining up on U.S. 1. Silano said the location distributes about 800 bags a week, with another 140 bags distributed at Daytona North, or the Mondex.
The Education Way location is now ideal for food distribution during the emergency because it’s entirely drive-by: families can stay in their car, pop the trunk, and have food deposited there by pantry volunteers (who now wear gloves).
But all year, a specific Grace Community Food Pantry team prepares 35 to 50 bags a week for distribution at the district’s four elementary schools, from where school personnel takes bags to remaining schools. That’s the “Backpack Program,” started in 2013 when Grace Community filled back-packs with food for needier children, and has since continued the program with 6 to 8-pound bags dropped off weekly. The bags are intended for pick-up by families on Friday, enabling them to have the extra food until school resumes after the weekend.
Silano said Grace Community can conceivably expand on that program very extensively, as long as the district provides drop-off locations. Amounts are not a concern.
“We get shipments upon request,” Silano said of his own food suppliers. “I have working relationships with three major food banks, all three of them supply me. We process about 2.5 million pounds of food per year. So I’m able to get almost anything.” Grace Community has been in a partnership with the school district since 2013. Now, with the national emergency the president declared on Friday, because of the coronavirus, Silano said he would be able to secure even more food if necessary. “Between all three I’ll have more than enough.”District officials had not replied to questions emailed to them Saturday about their plans, either with Grace Community or on the district’s own initiative. But a district spokesman on Friday had said that the district would use spring break–which started Friday and was to last one week–to devise such plans. The district continues to have access to food as well of course, Grace Community seeing itself as a supplement or a bridge to broader needs, but “even if that was not the case, between all the supplies I have we stand in good position,” Silano said. “This is not something that’s going to go on forever but even if it goes on for a couple of months we’ll be in good shape.”
Backpacks generally include a protein, carbohydrate, fruit, snack and a vegetable, what Silano calls “shelf-stable foods.”
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act the U.S. House of Representatives passed on a bi-partisan 363-40 vote Friday includes an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, and food aid specified for households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals if not for their schools being closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, according to wording in the bill. In order to be eligible, the child’s school must be closed for no less than five consecutive days, however. At the moment, the closure order that applies in Flagler is time-limited to five days, though that could change.
The Senate has yet to pass the bill. U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, whose district includes all of Flagler County, was one of 40 Republicans and just 2 of Florida’s 14 House Republicans who voted against the bill. Florida’s congressional delegation voted for it 22-2.