Addressing Food Instability in Bay County

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By Bill Husfelt, Superintendent, Bay District Schools

Food instability is a real challenge for thousands of families in our community and Bay District Schools is determined to do all we can to help!

Food Insecurity1For the third year in a row since Hurricane Michael ravaged our community, Bay District Schools has been able to offer all children a free breakfast and a free lunch at school thanks to a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At some elementary schools, children can also take advantage of a free afternoon/early evening meal when participating in our after-school programs.

While thousands of children take advantage of these free meals each day, we know that there are still hungry children in our community and that’s troubling. We can offer the most innovative, supporting learning environments at our schools but it’s a fact that hungry children cannot focus on academics.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 11 percent of Americans faced food instability during the month of September. In Florida that number is even higher with 13.1 percent of Floridians reporting trouble securing food on a regular basis (msn.com).

The situation locally is even more troubling according to the United Way which tracks families who are characterized as ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. United Way notes, “ALICE workers educate our children, keep us healthy, and make our quality of life possible, yet do not earn enough to support their own families. ALICE households are forced to make tough choices, such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent, which have long-term consequences not only for ALICE, but for all.”
As you can see from the most recent chart available (2018 statistics), 33 percent of the families in Lynn Haven are characterized as ALICE and 49 percent of the families within the city limits of Panama City were in that same group. Approximately 36 percent of beach families are considered ALICE compared to 38 percent in Southport and 50 percent in the Youngstown area.

So what this means is that we know our families are struggling and we know that food instability is real in our community. Free meals at school are a component of the solution but we know that even those don’t address all of the needs. And that’s just one of the reasons why we’re proud to partner with Mercy Chefs to assist in the delivery of free, fresh food boxes throughout our community.

Food Insecurity2These food boxes, which often also contain milk, cheese, bread and chicken, are available at countless sites throughout the week to anyone in need … there’s no paperwork, no ID required and no income verification. You can always check the BDS Facebook page for the latest schedule for Mercy Chefs and there are plenty of other organizations in our community who are sponsoring their own food drives, mobile pantries and distributions. You can call United Way’s information line, 2-1-1, to get more information.

Food instability is also the reason why we partnered with ChartwellsK12 back in March when schools were closed to ensure we were keeping the food flowing into our community. With about 40 buses on the road at one point, and 12 school-based pick-up sites, we served close to ONE MILLION meals from March to August of this year. We were able to keep this program going thanks to the generous support of the Bay County Commission/Bay County Emergency Services who funded the transportation piece all summer long. When we partner together, we can accomplish GREAT things!

We had never before implemented an innovative “meals on the bus” program and I am immensely grateful to all of the employees who made that happen. This program was logistically challenging, new to us and very labor intensive but our employees made it work.

Many of you are already doing your part to help with food instability by contributing to the “Blessings in a Backpack” program through your churches. Hundreds of backpacks filled with food are distributed throughout our schools on Fridays and many children count on those meals and snacks to get them through the weekends. We are so grateful for this support for our students.

Our teachers and administrators are also on the front lines of our efforts to curb food stability and I know they spend countless dollars of their own money to ensure they have a snack stash for those students who are late to school and miss breakfast or those who just can’t quite get enough to eat throughout the day. I wish they didn’t have to do that but I know them and their love for their students and I know for sure the need exists in our community. On that note, if you’re ever out buying groceries and notice a great deal on individually-packaged snacks, there’s not a teacher in our county who would not gratefully accept your donation! And you could rest assured that your donation will be going directly into the hands of hungry children in our community.

Food instability is a significant barrier to education and it’s something that impacts children throughout our community since the pandemic. Families that were stable before March are now facing job losses, evictions and other unexpected financial challenges and their access to food has changed. As a community, however, we can change the lives of our neighbors by contributing to those organizations who support families with food instability, by making direct donations of our own and by talking with friends and neighbors about solutions and concrete actions.

Our children deserve to live in a community where they have ready access to the food they need. BDS is so proud to be just one of the many community agencies working towards that goal. We appreciate your support and the hard work and dedication of all of our employees.

Together, we CAN make a difference!