Tears in her eyes and a mask covering her nose and mouth, Carole Aima had spent nearly four hours waiting for a chance at free groceries that never came.
“I’m here to get some food,” the 56-year-old former airport worker from North Miami Beach said after being turned away by a drive-thru pantry giveaway put on by North Miami for city residents. “I don’t know what to do. We tried to look everywhere for where they are giving free food. I have bills to pay. What can I do?”
Hundreds of North Miami residents did receive free bags of beans, rice, oil, bread and pasta that Friday afternoon, dry goods paid for with city tax dollars and limited to residents.
The effort was one of dozens of food giveaways popping up across Miami-Dade by charities, churches, tax-subsidized relief organizations, governments and elected officials to meet a crush of demand brought on by sudden, unprecedented layoffs during the coronavirus shutdown.
Bracing for the day when food pantries aren’t enough, Miami-Dade’s government is planning for regular food distributions countywide.
Staff at the Emergency Operations Center have discussed using closed parks and libraries for neighborhood drive-thru food centers. The latest strategy centers on schools given they generally have larger parking lots to handle streams of vehicles arriving to pick up food under new social-distancing requirements.
MIAMI-DADE’S ORDERING 500,000 MEALS READY-TO-EAT
To prepare, Miami-Dade has ordered 500,000 ready-to-eat meals, the kind of rations favored by the military since they don’t require refrigeration.
Frank Rollason, the county’s emergency director, said there’s no timetable yet for when Miami-Dade would start distributing the food. “If people don’t have money to go to the store, we could have a real problem on our hands,” Rollason said. “We’ve ordered 500,000 MREs as a last resort, so somebody would have something in their stomachs.”
The coronavirus pandemic has already meant long lines of cars for distributions by local food banks and charities. “It’s miles and miles of people,” said Farm Share CEO Stephen Shelley. “We run out of food long before people get to the start of the line.”
At a Farm Share food distribution event Saturday, the demand far exceeded the supply of 500 bags of food. The Miami commissioner who sponsored the distribution, Manolo Reyes, said the event reached capacity by 7 a.m. People had started lining up at 1:30 a.m. to receive food, and cars who would not have a chance at any food were backed up on Northwest 37th Avenue for hours.
“Today’s turnout to our Farm Share food distribution was definitely an eye opening experience to the large need and struggles our community is going through during this crisis,” Reyes tweeted Saturday.
Multiple Miami commissioners will be handing out food at multiple events in different parts of the city this week as part of an expanded citywide effort to provide for needy families.
Daniella Levine Cava, a Miami-Dade commissioner representing South Dade, said she wants the county to move quickly and not rely solely on other organizations to feed the unemployed.
“The unemployment checks are not coming in. Many households cannot afford to buy food,” said Levine Cava, a candidate for county mayor in 2020. “The county has a big role to play.”
In North Miami on Friday, cars stretched around the block from City Hall as city staff and volunteers in blue shirts handed out sacks of dry goods to residents. “There are a lot of people in this city in need,” said Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime.
Arthur Sorey III, the interim city manager, said about 350 bags had been given away by noon, roughly half of the supplies North Miami bought using funds left unspent from canceled events and other expenses cut short by coronavirus. “Because the money came from city coffers, we did limit it to city residents,” he said.
North Miami resident Edna Balan, 37, lost her job as dishwasher at the Bahia Mar hotel in Fort Lauderdale, and that’s left her struggling to buy groceries. “There’s no food in my home,” she said as she pulled away from the North Miami line with her bag of staples. “My hotel closed.”
City police monitored the flow of traffic, checking driver licenses. Those without North Miami ZIP codes were turned away as they approached the final turn to collect food. Aima said she arrived for the giveaway at 7 a.m., and it was noon when she was forced to to pull away when an officer looked at her North Miami Beach ZIP code.
“I live with my family. We are six people in the house,” Aima said. “I have to apply for unemployment. … But I couldn’t find it. Because so many people tried to apply. It’s too long.”
As a 56-year-old who recently lost a low-wage hospitality job at the Fort Lauderdale airport, Aima represents the the next phase of a county effort that so far has focused on providing free meals to homebound seniors.
THE COUNTY IS PREPARING FOR A ‘MASS FEEDING’ OPERATION IN NEIGHBORHOODS ACROSS MIAMI-DADE
The county’s order for 500,000 non-perishable meals captures how large of an operation Miami-Dade envisions. The county has been offering free home delivery of meals to people 60 and over since March 16. That entire three-week operation, as of Sunday, had delivered about 452,000 meals.
Rollason said the MRE orders are the first stage in a “mass feeding” contingency plan requested by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who oversees the county’s emergency operations.
A draft plan from March 31 includes maps of the county’s parks and libraries, with those in high-poverty neighborhoods highlighted. Rollason said the county has since shifted to schools, and a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Public Schools confirmed initial discussions about the county utilizing parking lots for the operation.
One complication is Miami-Dade’s school system already uses its high schools for grab-and-go meals for students and some families in need. Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, head of communications for the school system, said middle schools or elementary schools could be an option. She described the county and the school system as being in early stages of discussions about a food-distribution system. “We’re willing to assist any way we can,” she said.
Rollason said he can’t predict how long a county feeding operation would last. “It depends on what we’re facing,” he said. “If we see signs things are going south, we’ll put in another order.”