Hunger surges along with unemployment in South Florida

Feeding South Florida, an organization that delivers meals to the needy, is providing food distribution at numerous sites in response to the COVID-19-related economic crisis.  

Florida’s unemployment rate – currently 14.5 percent – tripled between March and May, leaving families with reduced grocery budgets. 

“When COVID-19 began its impact in South Florida in mid-March, Feeding South Florida experienced a 600 percent increase in requests for support,” said Michele Fernandez, the community engagement coordinator for Feeding South Florida. 

Prior to the pandemic, schools provided free meals or reduced-price lunches. Approximately 20 million free lunches were distributed through 100,000 schools and institutions each day in the United States, according to the School Nutrition Association. 

Schools are required to provide free meals to students whose household income is between 185 and 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, but many have been struggling to provide adequate alternatives during the pandemic. For example, Broward County schools – which transitioned to virtual learning on March 16 – provided meal distribution twice a week for a three-hour time window. This has been reduced to once a week for the summer.

Nadia Clarke is the assistant director of the office of family and community engagement at Broward County Public Schools. In the beginning of March, her team began to prepare. 

“Broward schools are not funded for adult meals so we partnered up with Feeding South Florida and South Florida Hunger Coalition to help our students as well as our adults,” said Clarke. “We have created an interactive food map in order to align all resources to make it easier for our citizens to see distribution sites. Anyone in the county can log on and sign up for any distribution site near them.” 

Feeding South Florida serves Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. It has a network of 300 partner agencies in the community which distributes food regularly. Public schools, cities and municipalities have collaborated with Feeding South Florida to organize regular food distributions as well. 

Giovany Ballarales, a resident of Miramar, is a current volunteer for Feeding South Florida. He works several Thursdays each month at the Miramar distribution site. 

“It is a great experience every time I’m there helping with the organization,” said Ballarales. “It makes me glad that I am helping my neighbors. I have a lot of friends that have lost their jobs and getting these meals has helped them survive through these last few months.” 

As an individual approaches the organization’s distribution center, they join the line, open the car’s trunk and wait for a volunteer to deposit the food into the trunk. No information is needed from them and all who arrive are helped. If the individual doesn’t have a vehicle, there are food pantries available for them in different locations. 

“The drive-thru distributions allowed us to respond to the communities’ increased need while abiding by CDC protocols for social distancing and maintaining the health and safety of staff, volunteers and clients served,” said Fernandez.

Ashley Rodriguez, a divorced mother of two living in a small home in Hialeah, visited the Miramar distribution center on June 4.

“I was scared of going because I didn’t know if they would ask where I lived since I am not a resident of the city of Miramar, but they didn’t,” said Rodriguez. “I lost my job in March and with very little savings, I’ve struggled to provide food for my kids. I’m so blessed to have found them; I don’t know of any other organization doing this.”

Maria Fernanda Suarez, born in San Cristobal, Venezuela, raised in Miami, Florida, her culture was strongly based on immigration and language barriers; she began to explore how to document the world through writing. Maria is studying at Florida International University and will soon have a bachelor's degree in Communications and Marketing.