Written by: Lucas King | Common Threads Marketing Intern

In late October, Common Threads teamed up with local leaders to hold a virtual panel discussion focused on nutrition equity in South Florida. Common Threads Co-Founder and CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe led the discussion with Miami-Dade County School principals Milagros Maytin-Miret and Yolanda Ellis, Paco Velez, the CEO of Feeding South Florida (the area’s largest food bank), state Rep. Vance Aloupis, state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Sen. Rene Garcia, a commissioner for Miami-Dade County district 13.

Principals Ellis and Maytin-Miret, representing Arcola Lake Elementary and W.J. Bryan Elementary, respectively, were the first panelists to speak to their experiences and the impact that COVID-19 has had on the health of students in their respective schools. 

When discussing food insecurity during the pandemic, Maytin-Miret highlighted the importance of access to fresh fruits and vegetables for families who might not have been able to otherwise access them, referencing her school’s collaboration with Common Threads early in the pandemic, when the Common Threads provided fresh fruits and vegetables and chef-prepared meals to families for several weeks (learn more). 

Ellis observed that a number of families and students at Arcola Lake Elementary who became reliant on the hot meals that the school district and local businesses were providing during the pandemic. “At our school, we had a core group of families that were really dependent on those meals, and they were very appreciative of being able to feed their families when many of them were out of work or laid off,” Ellis said.

Miami is a global city, and meeting people where they are means being culturally responsive. Velez explained that Feeding South Florida has moved toward choice pantries, allowing those who utilize their services to choose foods that suit their needs. The organization has also started working with school pantries, which has led to better performance from students, and more engagement from parents into their children’s nutrition. While the pandemic has made some of these interventions more difficult, Feeding South Florida has made the most improvements to their home delivery systems. 

Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez emphasized the importance of avoiding early diet-related health interventions for children by making sure they have access to healthy foods. She explained that diseases such as diabetes and hypertension can be prevented with a healthy intake of fruits and vegetables, and supporting organizations such as Feeding South Florida helps ensure access to all families. 

“From a legislative perspective… we invest in healthy nutritional programs,” Sen. Rodriguez said. “(Programs) like Common Threads will help keep people healthy, and help keep the cost of health care down.” 

Sen. Rene Garcia emphasized inequities in health care stem from nutritional inequities, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that many governmental departments try to solve these issues, but they often cannot get as much accomplished because they do not communicate enough with one another. 

“It’s what you put in your mouth that makes all the difference in the world,” Sen. Garcia said, stressing the importance of funding nutrition education programs like Common Threads. Sen. Garcia also emphasized the importance of making it fun to cook with fruits and vegetables, while also involving family members, too.

State Representative Vance Aloupis, who also serves as CEO of The Children’s Movement of Florida, shared the importance of providing healthy foods in South Florida schools, and integrating nutrition into early childhood education. Aloupis stresses that schools need to provide these healthy foods, while also preparing students to live a healthy lifestyle in the future by teaching them to cook healthy foods at home. Together with Sen. Rodriguez, Rep. Aloupis is co-sponsoring Common Threads’ 2022 Florida appropriation request for $333,000 in funding to expand and sustain the organization’s cooking and nutrition education programs.

“I’ve seen what it means for the students who get to participate (in Common Threads programs),” Rep. Aloupis said. “Those students are incredibly lucky to be able to participate in your program, but we don’t want this to be a program for only students, we want this to be available for as many students as possible”.

The panel discussion may be viewed below in its entirety.