In early March, as they do every year, Pasco County schools started putting together plans to feed students who wouldn’t be in school during the 2019-20 spring break.
Little did they know, however, that shortly after they started preparing, the decision to keep students home from school due to Covid-19 fears would come down on April 13…and then be extended…and then, finally, extended right through to the end of the academic year.
“It just came out of the blue,” says Betsy Kuhn, the school district’s assistant superintendent for support services. “We had to pull inventory (to feed students) from all over the county. It was crazy.”
What started as seven sites distributing bags of food to students soon grew to 28 sites and some additional bus stop pick-up sites.
Instead of a few thousand meals for the week of spring break, the ongoing pandemic resulted in more than 1 million meals being handed out to students across Pasco County over two-plus months — by food service employees, school administrators, teachers and volunteers.
The official total heading into the summer: 1,095,537 meals served.
“I definitely could not have imagined we’d get to that number,” says Kuhn. “Every week I would write down the numbers, and then last week I started looking at it and thought, ‘Gosh, that has to be close to a million meals.”
In Wesley Chapel, meals were handed out at Quail Hollow (QHE) and New River elementary schools. At New River, more than 10,000 meals were served on May 19 (which included additional meals for the following week, when there were no pick-ups because of Memorial Day weekend), bringing the total served at that location to 70,942.
That last week, nearly 10,000 meals were served at Quail Hollow — which wasn’t a site the first two weeks — to bring its total to 58,942 meals served.
Kara Smucker, the principal at QHE, lauded the effort by the Pasco School District on such short notice.
“This is a big task, and there has been so much guidance and support,” she said. “I appreciate all the hard work for all the kids in Pasco County.”
In addition to food pick-ups, the District also organized food drives and distributed fresh produce donated by local farmers at impromptu Farm Fresh Pop-Ups.
At its first pop-up on May 6, more than 30,000 ears of corn were handed out in two hours at Pasco High in Dade City and at Pine View and Chasco middle schools in Land O’Lakes and Port Richey, respectively..
The next week, at pop-ups at sites across the county, including one on May 14 at Cypress Creek High off Old Pasco Rd., hundreds of 10-pound boxes of a medley of vegetables were distributed and exhausted within an hour.
The most recent Farm Fresh Pop-ups were held at Pasco, Fivay (in Hudson) and Wesley Chapel high schools. More than 1,500 boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables were distributed, including all 540 available at Wesley Chapel.
“No matter what we got, people responded,” says Pasco County Schools spokesperson Steve Hegarty.
Food drives, at the Wesley Chapel Sam’s Club and at the Target in Trinity, produced 500 boxes of nonperishable items to go with donated turkey breasts.
Kuhn estimates that food distribution during the summer, which started last week, will be higher than usual. But after distributing more than 1-million meals and countless boxes of nonperishable foods and produce, the School District is ready for the challenge.
“It’s a good feeling to have done what we’ve done,” Kuhn says. “We have a lot to be proud of. And the people have been very very appreciative. Just really grateful. It’s been great.”
Pasco’s schools were just among the many local organizations and groups distributing food during these economically frightening times. Pasco County Commission chairman Mike Moore and District 38 State Rep. Randy Maggard hosted a drive-through food distribution site in the JC Penney parking lot at the Shops at Wiregrass May 20, with Farm Share — which distributes produce and meat donated by the state’s farmers — providing nearly 35,000 pounds of food to more than 700 cars.
The food included chicken, rice, milk, cereal, granola bars, canned foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It was pretty incredible,” Moore said. “It was very humbling to see the need out there, and it was nice to be able to help.”