ORLANDO, Fla. – Lines wrapped around school buildings weekly this summer in Orange County as parents waited to get free meals for their children.
The Orange County Public Schools Summer Meals Program made it all possible. Summer is unofficially over, but the free meals will keep coming.
Lora Gilbert, senior director of food and nutrition at Orange County Public Schools, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted the district waivers so that all students can eat meals free of charge this school year.
“(It’s) the best thing we’re going to do this year,” Gilbert said.
Although the country has reopened since the shutdown, families are still experiencing financial hardships.
Gilbert told News 6 that 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch this year, the highest percentage she’s ever seen.
Regardless of eligibility, any child in school qualifies for free breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“They really just can’t learn if they’re hungry, so it’s a pretty accepted fact that kids need nutrition, especially to fuel their brain,” Gilbert said.
Armanda Vaughns has three kids in Orange County schools and said navigating the pandemic is difficult, especially being a single mom with a full-time job.
“I know that even for me sometimes I had to scramble a lot and figure out, ‘What am I going to do next? How am I going to get this for the children:” Vaughns said.
She said the free meal program will ease parents’ minds.
The district is also assuring parents that students will be safe while eating in the lunchrooms.
“We have a very safe method to serve the food,” Gilbert said.
There will be plexiglass between servers and students. Staff will monitor the cafeterias, looking for students who may be too close to another student. Depending on the school, seating in the lunchroom could look different.
Gilbert said this school year there will be more available outdoor seating at some schools.
Gilbert said she anticipates the waivers for free meal last through May 2022.