Food fight: DeSantis, Fried square off over school lunch funds

(Left) Gov. Ron DeSantis, (Right) Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, are in a food fight over school lunch funding.

Fried claims DeSantis, a Republican, ignored her request to direct emergency funding to offset pandemic-related losses to school districts’ nutritional programs, but the governor said he’s been helping all along.

This week, Fried announced she secured $93 million to help school districts make up losses to their nutrition programs incurred throughout the pandemic.

During that announcement, she took this jab at DeSantis.

“We sent at least one, if not two, letters to the governor asking for money to be allocated to the school nutritional program and never received a response,” said Fried.

DeSantis’ office is pushing back against Fried’s claim.

“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,” a spokesperson told News4Jax. “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.”

The governor’s office also pointed to $9 billion in direct federal emergency funding received by school districts, plus an additional $1.4 billion the governor allocated himself.

His office said school districts had the ability to use that money how they saw fit, including on school lunch programs.

News4Jax did ask a DeSantis spokesperson for specifics on how much federal money was used for school lunch programs, but that number wasn’t readily available.

Regardless, Fried said the Department of Agriculture found school districts had lost $262 million in nutritional funding in the 2020 school year, even with the federal dollars they received.

“Governors in other states like California gave $112 million from their CARES dollars, North Carolina $75 million, Kentucky $30 million. But unfortunately here in the state of Florida, that didn’t happen,” said Fried.

The dispute seems to boil down to whether it’s better to let districts make their own decisions on how to spend relief funds or to set aside a separate pot of money for the specific purpose of nutritional funding.