‘We know they don’t eat, because they come back and get seconds,’ one school worker said
Tallahassee Democrat | By Ana Goñi-Lessan | February 1, 2022
For the past 15 years, Marsha Nelson has been called Grandma, Auntie, Ma’am and Miss. And the middle school food service worker calls her students her babies.
Some of her babies, however, can’t pay for the meals she serves every day and don’t have enough food at home.
“We know they don’t eat, because they come back and get seconds,” she said. “It’s always ‘Ma’am, can I get something, can I get something else?’ And I do what I can.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson, an area supervisor for Leon County Schools, said it wasn’t unusual for her to pay the dollar or two for children who didn’t have money for breakfast.
Doral, Fort Pierce legislators sponsor the bills
The bills, sponsored by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, and Rep. Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, would make free what are now reduced-price breakfasts for students who are just barely above the poverty level.
“This legislation is critical in responding to federal waivers that are set to expire this year,” Rodriguez said. Her bill “will ensure that federal child nutrition programs continue to operate by providing healthy meals and snacks for vulnerable children. More children will have meals available to them, at no cost to families.“
A child from a family of four in Florida that has a yearly household income of $49,025 would qualify for free breakfast. The funds used to pay for those lunches would be reimbursed by the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Nelson and other food service workers served breakfast from 8-9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Florida Capitol to advocate for an expansion of the state’s school breakfast program.
It’s the same meal Nelson would serve at Cobb Middle School in Tallahassee; chicken biscuits, scones, apple slices and yogurt parfaits with homemade granola. But instead of working in a cafeteria, Nelson and others were serving strawberry milk in the clouds on the 22nd floor observation deck.
It was part of Children’s Week Florida, which kicked off Monday at the Capitol. Throughout the week, legislators, lobbyists, local politicians, teachers, students and nonprofits come together to advocate for children across the state.
If the Rodriguez-Trabulsy legislation passes, 8,000 more children in Florida will qualify for free meals and more than 1.3 million breakfasts will be served to eligible students.
“It’s great for children, it’s great for families, and it’s great for school nutrition programs,” said Sky Beard, director of No Kid Hungry Florida, a nonprofit that targets childhood hunger.
Food insecurity causes problems at school
Research says children who experience food insecurity — usually defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food — are more likely to have behavioral issues, score lower on tests and learn less during the school year.
Hamilton County leads the state with the highest percentage of children who experience food insecurity at 34%. Gadsden County and Madison County come in at 32%. St. John’s County is last in line with only 12% of its children facing food insecurity.
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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has waived requirements for school meal programs and has made it easier for school districts to distribute meals to students, regardless of socioeconomic status.
These waivers only extend until June 30 of this year; the legislation would take effect July 1.
“It’s definitely a need, because it helps the children learn, it helps them grow,” Marsha Nelson said, lining up milk cartons in a cooler.
“And a lot of the times, you teach them respect because you’re dealing with them and you’re talking to them, and sometimes, they’re not getting that at home either.”