Struggling families look for solutions as pandemic free school lunch program expires

Seminole County Public Schools’ Red Apple Dining Program working to fill gaps

Thousands of Central Florida families who relied on free meals at school throughout the pandemic will have to apply for the benefit starting this next school year.

SANFORD, Fla. – Thousands of Central Florida families who relied on free meals at school throughout the pandemic will have to apply for the benefit starting this next school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a waiver at the beginning of the pandemic, which allowed all students, regardless of income, to receive free meals at school.

On June 30, that program will expire, leaving some families who struggle to make ends meet amid high inflation looking for solutions. One solution comes in the form of free lunches during the summer.

“Without Congressional action, our tools to assist program operators are much more limited,” USDA spokeswoman Jackie Romain told News 6. “USDA announced a few narrow program flexibilities that we can offer, and we stand ready to work with states to leverage those to meet local needs. We are also working diligently to assess how we can further support school food programs in the next school year. Our passion for serving children remains at full force, and we will move forward together to ensure kids get the nutritious meals they need and deserve.”

Working Toward Solutions

“I want to make sure everyone understands that we are open to everyone. There is no one that has to be a Seminole County resident,” said Richard Miles, director of Seminole County Public School’s Red Apple Dining Program. “It’s not just school.”

Miles spotlighted the fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as the handmade pizzas using multigrain crust and fresh mozzarella during a recent tour of the kitchen at Midway Elementary School.

He said the funding for the Summer Food Service Program for Seminole County schools, as well as districts across Central Florida, comes from the USDA. He said anyone under 18 years old can come to certain locations and receive free meals during the summer.

However, by August, families will need to submit applications to see if their household income qualifies them for free meals.

A worker for Seminole County Public Schools' Red Apple Dining Program prepares a pizza for students. (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

According to the Heart of Florida United Way, 39% of Central Florida families barely make enough money to make ends meet.

That number grows to 77% in the Midway area of Sanford.

With rising inflation and skyrocketing rent, those percentages may also grow.

Last school year, workers at Midway Elementary served 110,000 meals, according to Miles. He said 23,000 of those meals went to students who would have otherwise not qualified for the free or reduced lunch program.

“If there is anyone that comes into hardship or special circumstances, there is a method for us to take care of them, as well,” Miles said. “It’s just really important that you go to our website, that you give us a call, so that we can help you and your family and find out exactly what your needs are.”

“Pizza day can be overwhelming when you’re making 80 pizzas,” May Ann Meyers said.

Meyers said she has worked at the district’s Red Apple Dining Program for the last 13 years.

“(Children) come in and they will say, ‘Oh, I’m so hungry, this morning.’ You’re like, ‘Well, why are you so hungry?’ ‘Well, I didn’t eat last night,’” she said. “Well, you know inside why they didn’t eat, and it just kind of rips at your heart.”

Applications for the free lunch program will be taken later this summer.

Summer lunch locations can be found here.

About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.