Student meal distribution is essential work

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
HENDRY COUNTY — Hendry County schools Food Service Director San Juanita Perez has been working hard to make sure the children of Hendry County have access to food while school campuses have been closed.

HENDRY COUNTY — Essential workers are out there, often behind the scenes, making sure our community has what it needs during this pandemic. One of the most essential items out there is food.

School-aged children and their families often rely on their school to provide free or low-cost meals. During the school year these meals are a staple, and when school campuses were closed in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, hard-working staff at our local school districts had to work even harder to make sure to keep the children fed.

One of those staff members is San Juanita Perez. She was born in Clewiston and has lived in LaBelle throughout her life.

“I have a 22 year-old son that like me, was raised here in LaBelle,” she said. “My family, on both sides, came here to LaBelle in the 1960s so they are well known in town,” explained Ms. Perez. “I enjoy the small town feel and atmosphere and that everyone knows your name type of life. I love that this community comes together in times of need, no matter the situation.”

Ms. Perez has worked for the Hendry County School District since the summer of 2015, and currently works in the food service department as the food service director. She manages the staff and oversees the logistics of meals served to children who attend Hendry County public schools.

“Our department is providing meals for the children of Hendry County. There are many students that their only access to meals is when they are in school, so we are trying to make sure they do not go without food,” Ms. Perez said. “My department is helping to feed the future leaders of this community and/or possibly the nation!”

Things have changed dramatically for all of us, as well as Ms. Perez, since the stay-at-home orders were issued and schools were closed. She has helped with logistics, getting meal distribution sites up and running to distribute nutritious meals, providing food six days a week, for of all of our local children — and adding sites in remote areas as the need became more apparent. It’s been difficult, but she has been able to adapt and make changes, as needed, to fight hunger during this pandemic.

“We are all being faced with something new that has never been heard of nor done before. There are no manuals or instructions on how things are supposed to be done in something like this, so I am constantly hoping that our actions are the right ones. I am passionate about my work, and there is no room for negativity! But I do give thought to the question, am I doing enough?” she said.

Since she first heard about COVID-19, she has taken it seriously, “I am much more cognizant of the places I go to and what I touch at those places such as entrance/exit doors. I am careful to not be so close to those around me in the stores. I also talk to my immediate family more often than ever to stay in contact with them. I have taken the stay at home order seriously and only go to stores when I absolutely have to.”

She went on, “I would have to say that more people need to take this virus more seriously. I see a lot of people not using safety precautions especially with children, and that worries me. I wouldn’t want anyone in this community or area to lose someone over this deadly virus, especially children, so please take precautions and look after your family.”

Ms .Perez describes a typical day for her during this pandemic. “I am up by 6 a.m. during the week and at my office by 8 to 8:15 a.m. I check emails, and reach out to our site managers to see if they need anything. I visit the meal distribution sites here in LaBelle and Clewiston at least once a week.

“My biggest fear is that of coming into contact with this deadly virus. I think about that a lot, and what could happen to all of us — but that just drove me crazier, so I have had to learn to not worry so much!” Ms. Perez remained positive, saying her biggest hope for the future is, “that I am still alive, and that perhaps, I have made a small contribution or difference in this world during my lifetime.”

She definitely has already made a difference, as many families, throughout Hendry County, have experienced Ms. Perez’s contributions to fighting hunger. Children who might normally have to go without, as more and more people have been furloughed or have lost their jobs during this pandemic, are receiving breakfast and lunch, through Hendry County Sodexo Food Service and the Hendry County School District, Monday through Saturday. These meals are being distributed at meal sites throughout LaBelle and Clewiston, as a direct result of the work Ms. Perez and her staff do.

As our interview closed, Ms. Perez said, “Take this time to stay home with your family and make the best of it while you can. We are never promised tomorrow so, stay safe and healthy, everyone!”

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