Grace Community Pantry is mobilizing to provide a food bridge to the neediest children in the Flagler District in the event of an emergency

Grace Community Food Pantry, Flagler County’s largest food operation for those most in need, is offering to provide substantial food aid during the coronavirus emergency for distribution to Flagler County school children who would normally receive free or reduced meals at school.

“We’re ready to go all the way, really,” said Pastor Charles Silano, who runs the pantry with 80 volunteers, today. “We will be able to deliver to any location of their choosing to make it easier for children to access food.”

The state Department of Education has ordered all public schools in Florida to remain closed until at least March 30. Thousands of schools in at least eight other states were also ordered to close on Friday, and many more are expected to follow suit, albeit reluctantly.

“I understand this will put pressure on many of our families,” Superintendent Jim Tager said in a statement Friday, “but the Flagler Schools team will work to determine what services, if any, we can provide to our families the week after spring break. The day before, he had written about the strain such a shutdown would place on families whose children depend on the school district for their best meals of the day. Some 60% of the 13,000 students in the district enjoy free or reduced-price lunch.

Pastor Charles Silano. (© FlaglerLive)

Early Saturday morning, Dottie Coletta emailed several district officials, including Lynette Shott, director of student and community engagement, to let them know that Pastor Charles Silano, who runs Grace Community Food Pantry, and his 80 volunteers” are there to help. Since the schools will be closed for at least two weeks, we wanted to offer our help with food to children who may need it. We have food and we would be able to l ‘Bring the kids a week to people who drive by for pickups every Saturday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Sundays between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., with cars lining up on US 1. Silano said that location distributes approximately 800 bags per week, with another 140 bags distributed at Daytona North, or Mondex.

The Education Way location is now ideal for food distribution during the emergency as it is fully accessible by car: families can stay in their car, open the trunk and have food dropped off there by food pantry volunteers (who are now wearing gloves).

But year-round, a specific Grace Community Food Pantry team prepares 35 to 50 bags a week for distribution to the district’s four elementary schools, from where school staff deliver the bags to the remaining schools. This is the “backpack program”, started in 2013 when Grace Community filled backpacks with food for the neediest children, and has since continued the program with 6-8 pound bags dropped off every week. The bags are meant to be collected by families on Friday, allowing them to have extra food until school resumes after the weekend.

Silano said Grace Community can eventually expand this program quite extensively, as long as the district provides drop-off locations. The amounts are not a concern.

Food distribution at Education Way.  (Grace Community)
Food distribution at Education Way. (Grace Community)

“We get shipments on demand,” Silano said of his own food suppliers. “I have working relationships with three major food banks, all three supply me. We process approximately 2.5 million pounds of food per year. So I can get almost anything. Grace Community has partnered with the school district since 2013. Now, with the national emergency the president declared Friday due to the coronavirus, Silano said he would be able to get even more food if needed. “Between the three, I’ll have more than enough.” District officials had not responded to questions emailed to them Saturday about their plans, either with Grace Community or on the district’s own initiative. But a district spokesperson said Friday the district would use spring break — which began Friday and was expected to last a week — to devise such plans. Of course, the district continues to have access to food, with Grace Community seeing itself as a supplement or a bridge to broader needs, but “even if it didn’t, between all the supplies I have, we are in a good position.” Silano said. “It’s not something that’s going to last forever, but even if it lasts a few months, we’ll be in good shape.”

Backpacks typically contain a protein, carbohydrate, fruit, snack, and vegetable, which Silano calls “stable-stable foods.”

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that the U.S. House of Representatives passed in a 363-40 bipartisan vote on Friday includes an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, and aid specified food for households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals if their schools are not closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, according to the wording of the bill. To be eligible, however, the child’s school must be closed for at least five consecutive days. At this time, the shutdown order that applies to Flagler is time-limited to five days, although that may change.

The Senate has yet to pass the bill. U.S. Representative Michael Waltz, whose district includes all of Flagler County, was one of 40 Republicans and only 2 of 14 Republicans in the Florida House who voted against the bill. Florida’s congressional delegation voted for her 22-2.

Norma P. Rex