GazetteXtra Print Article Logo URL:

Food flight: Traffic concerns push Irma nutrition aid to Pasco fairgrounds

By C.T. Bowen
Pasco County's Food for Florida distribution will be Nov. 5-8 at the county fairgrounds outside Dade City. The county pulled the plud on the initial location, the Land O' Lakes Recreation Center on Collier Parkway, fearing a repeat of the scene in Plant City where long lines of traffic appeared on Oct. 9. The nutrition program is for people affected by Hurricane Irma. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

DADE CITY — The Pasco County Fair Association is used to being a food source. But the typical corn dogs and sugar-coated funnel cakes will be replaced next month with debit cards allowing people to make their own culinary selections at retail stores.

The fairgrounds, on State Road 52 outside Dade City, is the site of a planned Food for Florida distribution program Nov. 5 to 8 for people affected by Hurricane Irma.

The program, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is operating in 48 counties declared federal disaster areas after Irma. Known as D-SNAP, the benefits compensate applicants for losses incurred between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4 and are intended as a one-time financial boost to low-income families not already receiving food stamps. Qualifying Irma-related losses include food or income, temporary shelter expenses or damage to homes.

The county and state Department of Children and Families settled on the date and location last week after the county pulled the plug on the initial site, the Land O’Lakes Recreation Center on Collier Parkway.

Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles sent an Oct. 16 letter to DCF terminating a contract approved six days earlier by the commission, which had authorized the agreement but expressed concerns about traffic congestion on Collier. Board members suggested that the event be moved to the vacant site that formerly housed a Super Target store at State Road 54 near the Suncoast Parkway in Lutz. That property, however, was unavailable.

DCF said as many as 82,000 people in 32,000 households could have been served at the Land O’Lakes location over the four days it was to be open to the public.

The recreation center is about a mile north of State Road 54 on four-lane Collier Parkway, a heavily traveled north-south road serving the commuting workforce from abutting neighborhoods, plus motorists headed to two nearby schools, three preschools and a public library branch.

"Unfortunately, we are not comfortable that the event if held in this location will not impact the community in the same manner it has in other locations where it has been held,’’ Biles wrote to DCF

Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety, said the Pasco Sheriff’s Office was concerned about traffic and the capacity of the recreation center. The fairgrounds, he said, has 20 acres of parking available, even though its main access on SR 52 can only carry one lane of traffic in each direction.

"DCF will support the people of Pasco County in any way we can,’’ Jennifer Kuhn, DCF’s regional director, wrote in response to Biles.

However, Kuhn noted that planning for the event began in August; DCF got initial approval to move forward on Sept. 14, and "all parties agreed the Land O’Lakes Recreation Complex was the best location for the anticipated turnout’’ following a Sept. 22 conference call between state and county officials.

"Despite the preparation and collaboration, the final decision to terminate the agreement to host a Pasco County Food for Florida site was not made until five days prior to the site opening to serve local residents,’’ Kuhn wrote.

What changed was the turnout in Plant City, where officials processed nearly 41,000 applications over five days. On Oct. 9, some people said they waited in traffic for two hours to get to the baseball stadium where the event was held. Traffic problems also were reported for the Pinellas County site in Seminole, where the state processed nearly 30,000 applications from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2.

In Broward County, police had to shut down food assistance centers Oct. 14 and 15 after people waiting in snarling lines suffered heat exhaustion, officials said. Media reports about the long lines at South Florida locations prompted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to request additional resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"While I am grateful that D-SNAP was approved, I am deeply concerned by news reports of how poorly it is being executed by the state of Florida,’’ Nelson wrote in an Oct. 17 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.