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School food becomes shelter meals

How a Florida school district fed 25,000 Hurricane Irma evacuees.

Schools in Manatee County, located about halfway up the western coast of Florida, are de facto emergency shelters when storms hit the area. When the district saw Hurricane Irma working its way across the Atlantic, it knew it would be big. So the district planned to open 10 schools as emergency shelters, the maximum they’d opened in the past.

But this time, there were many thousands more evacuees than they expected. The district ended up opening 25 schools as shelters, housing 25,000 displaced people. From Friday, Sept. 8 through Monday, Sept. 11, the district provided three meals a day to all evacuees, for a grand total of close to 250,000 meals.

To feed shelter guests, the district has to be ready long before a storm is brewing. It always warehouses drinking water, but it also keeps an eye on the weather and stock extra food and water when a storm looks like it’s coming their way.

Sandra Ford, chief of operations for the district, says this kind of preparation is the norm in Florida. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Hurricanes are exhausting. It’s a slow-moving, emotional drama. You have 10 days to two weeks to look at predictions,” she says. Having logistics in place is vital. “You just have to have a plan cemented.”

The district ensured a full staff by paying foodservice, transportation, maintenance and custodial workers at their regular rate to work at shelters. Administrative staff are required to work.

The district is well supplied with food. During an emergency, school food inventory is diverted to shelter meal operations. And they’re not required to seek special permission to use school food for shelters, Ford says. “Florida has an ongoing agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that we can utilize food and additional commodity foods without additional authorization.”

Since food is spread out in more than 50 locations, employees transport it themselves using district vehicles.

In order to uphold food safety regulations, the school district does not accept food donations at the shelters. It made a rare exception this time when a private school showed up with a limited amount of shelf-stable food.

Sheltering in schools is helpful from a foodservice standpoint. They use school kitchens to prepare and store food. Although they use disposables whenever possible, they also have access to school cutlery, trays, cups and other supplies.

The workers cook from scratch as they’re able and plan meals based on available ingredients. Meal preparation procedures aim to minimize food waste in the event of a power outage, so they use fresh foods first, such as salad greens and dairy products. They also use frozen foods right away. They turn to shelf-stable foods as other options are exhausted.

School shelters can’t always follow school nutrition guidelines when they’re feeding evacuees. They strive to offer a balanced plate, with an entrée, fruit, vegetable and milk. But as supplies dwindle, this becomes more difficult. The goal is simply to feed everyone something; evacuees have little to no food choices.

Prior to Irma, the district had never disposed of unused food following a shelter operation. But this time, they suffered a significant loss when a number of non-shelter schools lost power for several days. By the time the district discovered the outages, 75,000 pounds of perishable food supplies had been compromised. They had to dispose of it all.

Coffee was another issue. The Red Cross, which usually supplies coffee during a hurricane, was still on the ground in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. The Manatee district ordered coffee from a supplier, but brewing it in borrowed coffee pots was a separate, and logistically thorny, issue. They’ll purchase their own pots for the upcoming season. They also had to figure out coffee logistics: Volunteers at the tables are needed to control distribution, so the coffee doesn’t run out.

Ford says between 80 percent and 90 percent of shelter meals for natural disasters are reimbursed through FEMA. The process requires fastidious documentation and a hefty waiting period. Ford estimates that they’ll receive payment in another six months, a full year after the disaster.

The district is “really ramping up our efforts going into next season,” Ford says. They’ve added an extra training for all administrators and will engage in more post-disaster assessment, to make sure they’re more prepared every time a storm hits.

Though operating shelters is a stressful business, for every frustrating memory, there’s an uplifting one. “And I think that’s what you really have to focus on,” Ford says, “that you really did make a difference for people.”

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