Nikki Fried Asks Ron DeSantis to Send CARES Act Funds to School Lunch Programs

At the end of last week, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried sent a second letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterating her September 11 request that part of Florida’s federal CARES Act funding provided for emergency relief to Florida schools and school districts be dedicated to supporting National School Lunch Program (NSLP) sponsors.

Last year, more than 289 million school meals were served to 2.9 million Florida students, 71 percent of which were free or reduced-price meals. School meals are an important part of fighting food insecurity that affects 3 million Floridians, including 850,000 children, and continues to worsen during COVID-19.

The letter follows a report published in August by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) highlighting nearly $262 million in financial losses experienced by Florida school lunch providers due to COVID-19. Schools and school districts may face up to an additional $370 million in nutrition funding losses in the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic. With COVID-19 cases surging to record highs, Florida schools would face severe financial impacts should schools once again need to close. States including Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and others have spent CARES Act funds to support school nutrition programs.

The letter reads as follows:

Governor DeSantis,

On September 11, I wrote to you seeking the obligation of CARES Act funding for one of Florida’s most emergent public health needs during this pandemic: child nutrition amidst worsening chronic hunger. I write today to reiterate the importance of this request.

As you know, the CARES Act provided $150 billion in economic assistance to state and local governments. Florida received an $8.32 billion allocation, with $4.58 billion available to Florida’s state government. As has been widely noted, there are numerous priorities in the public interest in which these CARES Act funds could be utilized, from providing adequate unemployment benefits to expanding the availability of COVID-19 testing.

Yet food insecurity that already plagues 3 million Floridians, including 850,000 children, presents a serious public health crisis worsened by the pandemic is increasing. Chronic hunger in Florida is expected to reach as high as 19 percent this year due to the state’s economic weakness.

Throughout COVID-19, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has worked diligently to provide access to nutritious meals for students and ensure that Florida’s children remain fed. During the 2019-2020 school year, over 400 sponsors at more than 4,000 meal sites served over 289 million meals to 2.9 million students through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), of which 71 percent of Florida students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. NSLP sponsors are reimbursed for each breakfast, lunch, and snack served that meet federal nutrition guidelines and meal components.

Amid the COVID-19 school closures, Florida schools transitioned from providing NSLP services to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), together known as Summer BreakSpot, operating at schools, non-profits, and other community-based organizations. Our department worked to quickly authorize 3,775 sites across Florida, at which Summer BreakSpot sponsors served 59,247,081 meals to children from March through June.

In August, the FDACS Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness released a report detailing nearly $262 million in financial losses to NSLP sponsors during COVID-19, including public schools and non-profit private schools. Despite navigating supply disruptions, efforts to keep staff and students safe, and financial challenges, NSLP sponsors have continued to do an outstanding job of keeping Florida’s children fed.

As these efforts continue despite unprecedented disruption to schools and school districts, NSLP sponsors will continue to incur financial hardships due to staffing instability; purchasing or leasing new equipment for meal distribution and delivery; and increased food costs as schools pivot to more expensive pre-packaged or shelf-stable food items. While expected to be financially self-sufficient, NSLP sponsors are struggling with increased costs and decreased reimbursements to nutrition fund balances. According to our department’s report, school districts may face up to $370 million in pandemic-related losses of nutrition funding in the first half of the 2020-21 school year. With COVID-19 cases reaching record highs, schools may face severe financial impacts should schools once again need to close in the interest of public health.

School nutrition departments are essential to keeping students nourished and ready to learn — for many students, school meals are the only consistent meals on which they can rely. To ensure that NSLP sponsors can continue serving Florida’s children, I hereby again request that a portion of CARES Act funding allocated for emergency relief to Florida schools and school districts be dedicated to supporting Florida’s school nutrition programs, including NSLP sponsors’ ongoing service costs, defraying costs associated with school meal delivery, expanding existing service capacity, and maintaining current levels of operations.

As noted in the prior September 11 letter, this request is consistent with the way in which other states are expending their CARES Act allocations, including $112 million in California, $75 million in North Carolina, $30 million in Kentucky, $12 million in Vermont, and $3 million in Virginia. This may be fulfilled through use of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, and other funding vehicles.

It is crucial that a portion of the federal CARES Act funding is dedicated to support the National School Lunch Program in Florida. Our department, as well as schools, school districts, and NSLP sponsors, remain focused on providing Florida’s students with access to nutritious meals. I am certain you agree that ensuring the adequate funding of child nutrition is essential to strengthening our state’s public health and future long after today’s pandemic ends.

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