More Keys students need free or reduced meals after Irma

Since Hurricane Irma struck Sept. 10, more than half of Monroe County School students are receiving free or reduced meals.
Since Hurricane Irma struck Sept. 10, more than half of Monroe County School students are receiving free or reduced meals. Keynoter

Since Feb. 1, the Monroe County School District has been running a $400-a-day deficit in its free- and reduced-meals program as more than half of all students are the federal program following Hurricane Irma, which struck five months ago.

“I’m projecting about $400 a day, $12,000 a month,” said Melissa Albright, food services director for the district. “I’m just putting it into perspective.”

Albright said 59 percent of Monroe County students are on the federal meals program. Before Irma, the figure was in the 30s. Of 8,171 students, 4,748 are eating for free.

“That speaks to what the hurricane did and a lot of those are parents who applied for disaster [food stamps],” Albright said.

Albright said because her program is federal, it cannot acquire debt and can’t use any surplus funding to make up the difference.

At issue are about 3,000 families no longer qualify for the federal program but they’re not sending in the lunch and breakfast money, Albright said, adding that families with immigration status worries may be afraid to turn in paperwork — which they shouldn’t.

“We targeted those parents,” Albright said. “What we’re doing is the kids go through and they’re charging the meal. Nothing is said to them. We’re providing principals with negative balance reports every week.”

“The money is going to have to come from somewhere,” she said. “It’ll either be administration or donations.”

School Board member John Dick on Friday wasn’t stressing out about the deficit, which only started Feb. 1 after the federal government gave Keys schools a final deadline on extending free and reduced meals due to the Cateogry 4 storm that leveled neighborhoods in the Lower and Middle Keys.

“We’re getting donations from places,” Dick said. “We’re trying to work every way we can with trying to help out. It’s not an easy situation.”

Dick pointed out that the debt only started Feb. 1, so the $12,000-a-month projected debt hasn’t happened yet.

“We’re not stuck yet,” Dick said.

Albright presented a report to the School Board at its Feb. 13 meeting in Key West.

Monroe was the only county to get such an extension for free and reduced lunches in light of Irma, said Superintendent Mark Porter, who praised Albright for hanging tough.

“She’s done a much better job than trying,” Porter said. “There’s been some remarkable and very positive changes through some very difficult times.”

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen