It’s hard to imagine getting through most days without that noontime break for lunch. That packed sandwich, frozen entrée, or maybe even a quick trip to a local eatery, is something many people take for granted each day.
But for 36,000 students in the Pasco County school district, that trip to the cafeteria may be the only nutritious meal they have all day, paid for through federal tax dollars.
What happens, however, when school lets out? These students, who account for nearly 53 percent of the entire school population in the county, still need to eat. And they’re not being left behind.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services manages a federal program known as Summer BreakSpot. Last year alone, it provided more than 12 million meals to nearly 300,000 children statewide, setting up hundreds of locations where kids in need can be sure to have something good and nutritious to eat.
“We want kids across Florida to eat healthy, wholesome food throughout the school year, and all summer long,” said agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam in a release. “This program helps ensure children have access to healthy meals during the summer, along with enrichment activities and time with their friends, so they are ready to learn in the fall when school is back in session.”
Locally, Summer BreakSpot is run by Pasco County Schools, operating more than 60 sites where kids can travel a short distance — typically to local schools — to get a bite to eat. But not everyone can make that trip on a daily basis, or at all. And the school district has done something about it.
“There are kids who can’t get to those sites,” said Cindy Norvell, a food and nutrition specialist for Pasco County Schools. “Many of them don’t have transportation. So instead of expecting them to come to us, we took meals to them out into the communities that needed them most.”
Three years ago, the school district began retrofitting retired school buses, turning them into traveling food stations. Most of the seats have been replaced with makeshift food counters, where kids can sit and eat, and have a bright view out the window.
There are five buses that travel around to various communities each day, loaded with a variety of foods depending on the day. It could range from a turkey sandwich, to a beef stick with cheese, to even build-your-own pizza kits.
“All of it comes with fruit, and everyone always gets their milk,” Norvell said. “Our mobile units also carry applesauce and extra peach cubes for some of our children who are below a certain age.”
The buses will typically stop in a common park area of a community, many times with picnic tables nearby so that kids can choose to eat on the bus, or maybe out in the shade. But to ensure that only they eat the food they get, kids can’t take any food with them.
No one under 18 is turned away at the mobile units either, Norvell said. If they are there, they will get something to eat. If a bus runs out of food, they can quickly call out to a nearby BreakSpot location to get more.
Amy Sue Hammond leads a two-person team that drives the mobile unit through stops around Dade City. She spent 15 years as a bus driver for East Pasco County schools, and now transports autism students to schools that are sometimes 90 minutes away.
In the summer, she’s working with BreakSpot, continuing her own personal commitment to make sure every child has a chance.
“You have to have a lot of patience, but seeing these kids excited to see us pull up is its own reward,” Hammond said. “All of this we’re doing is very important, because without these buses, many of these kids would go hungry.”
Hammond’s bus is one of two buses that serves East Pasco. Her bus begins each day at Pasco Elementary School, while a second bus departs every morning from Lacoochee Elementary School. Both make a total of three stops, with Hammond’s route typically seeing nearly 100 kids a day.
“Despite all we do to get the word out about this program, I am sure there are people who still don’t know about it,” Norvell said. “Some people are just surprised when you start to talk about it. But it’s something we have available, and something we hope families who need it will take advantage of.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has modernized access to the 2014 Summer BreakSpot food program for kids needing meals while school is out.
Access to more than 3,400 locations statewide — including more than 60 in Pasco County and nearly 125 in Hillsborough County — is available one of the following four ways:
• Dial 211
• Text “FoodFL” to 877-877
• Download the Nutrislice smartphone app
• Visit SummerFoodFlorida.org.
Published July 2, 2014
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