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Fried, DeSantis tussle over credit for school nutrition program funding

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jul 14, 2021

Governor Ron DeSantis and Department of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried are at odds over who deserves credit for school nutrition assistance funding. / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Gov. Ron DeSantis are in a quarrel over credit for nutrition funding to schools after Fried announced that her department obtained $93.2 million in federal emergency relief funding to Florida schools impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Florida school districts lost $262 million in nutrition funding to COVID-19 in the 2020 school year, according to a statement issued by Fried’s office.

Fried’s office stated that the commissioner requested DeSantis use a portion of the state’s federal CARES Act funding to support school districts and nutrition providers, and to prevent staff reductions and meal service changes due to financial hardship but stated the governor never responded.

Jason Muhon, Deputy Communications Director for the office of DeSantis, responded through an email by stating “we absolutely support providing funding for schools to make sure they can continue to provide nutrition programs, that is not what is up for debate. The fact is that without provocation, the Commissioner of Agriculture alleged that Governor DeSantis did not support this funding, or providing meals for students. This is unequivocally false. Again, the Governor’s Office authorized the budget amendment to make the funding possible.”

Muhon stated that “DeSantis and (Department of Education) Commissioner (Richard) Corcoran have taken repeated, deliberate and intentional actions to make sure schools could open for in-person learning in the 2020 school year, and to make sure the school districts had funding and flexibility to provide services to their students, including school meals. Again, the Governor and Commissioner Corcoran began providing financial support and flexibilities to school districts in March 2020. Commissioner Fried’s letter came around September 2020.”

Fried’s department oversees Florida’s $1.3 billion school lunch and breakfast programs, responsible for feeding approximately 3 million children more than 300 million meals a year, her office stated.

Muhon stated Corcoran’s emergency order in March of 2020 provided full school funding through the remainder of the school year and granted flexibility in how school districts could utilize these funds.

“As a result of the state ensuring full funding was provided to school districts during the time schools were closed, the State was able to claim approximately $929.3 million in reimbursement funding from the Coronavirus Relief Funding (CRF),” Muhon stated.

The funds announced by Fried will be spread out to 414 school food authorities, 66 school districts, as well as the laboratory schools at Florida A&M University and Florida Atlantic University. This includes 128 private, nonprofit, and charter schools, and residential childcare institutions. The recipients are National School Lunch Program (NLSP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) operators.

“Healthy nutrition is so critical to our children, because without food in our schools, they can’t succeed in school, which means they can’t succeed in life,” Fried stated in an email. “COVID-19 harmed our schools to the tune of $262 million in lost school nutrition funding, meaning schools would have to make some really tough choices. Governors in other states had used CARES Act funding to support school nutrition, but unfortunately here in the state of Florida, that didn’t happen – so we went directly to the USDA to help ensure that Florida’s children wouldn’t go hungry,” Fried said.

Fried, who is planning to run against DeSantis for governor in 2022, stated that with 1 million children in Florida being “food insecure, and 71 percent of school meals being free or reduced-price, we can’t afford any interruption in school nutrition.”

Muhon stated that under the Corcoran’s emergency orders, school districts received “$681 million in state funding that would have otherwise been reduced due to a decline in student attendance.”