TAMPA — Hillsborough County Schools is spending its own money to feed schoolchildren during the partial shutdown of the federal government. The cost: $525,000 a day.
The shutdown that started Tuesday put the brakes on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program and has cast a shadow over food stamps, cash welfare and other federally funded antipoverty programs.
Hillsborough County Schools feeds about 71,000 students through its federally subsidized free-and-reduced meal program. Students who qualify get two meals a day. In most cases, their families already qualify for food stamps and other aid.
The USDA reimburses the district each month for the cost of the meals it serves. Last year, the district got back $70 million. This fiscal year, which started July 1, the district has reserves of $31 million in its food program.
“We are still feeding students,” school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Wednesday.
The district can continue to cover school lunch costs from its own pocket for a while before it needs to re-evaluate the program, Arja said.
“I’m told that, at least for a few weeks, we should be OK,” Arja said. “After that we’ll review our menu and look for places to cut. The first place we’ll look will be fresh produce.”
Pinellas County Schools still has federal funds to cover its school lunch costs and will dip into its reserves for any costs the government doesn’t reimburse, said spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra.
Arja said Hillsborough County Schools expects to get reimbursed this month for its school lunch expenses from September. It’s not clear what will happen to expenses incurred during the shutdown.
State officials have said the district will indeed be reimbursed for its costs during the shutdown, but it’s not clear whether the state government or federal government will do the reimbursing, Arja said.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” she said. Calls to USDA have gone unanswered, she said.
Across the three-county Tampa region, more than 500,000 people rely on federally funded food programs for their meals — a number that has nearly doubled since the economy collapsed five years ago.
People who depend on federal food stamps and welfare programs will keep their benefits for now, said Terry Field, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families’ Tampa office.
“At this time the shutdown is not impacting any other services provided by DCF,” Field said.
The Department of Children and Families administers the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, as well as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash payments to poor people with children, and Medicaid.
In August, the most recent month for which figures are available, Florida issued $493 million in food stamp payments for 3.6 million recipients. In Florida, about 60 percent of recipients are adults. Nationally, about 60 percent of food-stamp recipients are children.
In Hillsborough County that same month, food stamps helped feed nearly 280,000 people, a record enrollment. Forty percent of those are children, according to DCF.
Despite the partial government shutdown, DCF has enough money to fund food stamps and other programs supporting the poor through the end of October, Field said.
After that, the agency has contingency funds it can tap to administer the programs, Field said.
“We are still accepting applications for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid, and processing cases as normal,” Field said.
In October, the food-stamp program will receive its final boost from the federal stimulus program — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — passed in 2009. Those funds will be exhausted Nov. 1, leading to a cut in benefits for everyone on food stamps.
According to the Department of Agriculture’s shutdown contingency plans, the department will continue to fund the Women, Infants and Children food program, which is administered through the state Department of Health.
“The Florida Department of Health continues to monitor the situation in Washington, D.C.,” said spokeswoman Sheri Hutchinson. “The department will be able to continue WIC services for the foreseeable future.”
Reporter Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.