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Shutdown leaves Florida SNAP recipients, food banks in need

Agencies are stepping in to fill the need.

Despite the federal government shutdown, the 2.9 million Floridians who receive federal food assistance will get through February with an early allotment to stock up on groceries, but the shutdown has created a whole new group of people who aren’t used to needing help getting food on the table — federal workers.

For now, those federal workers can seek assistance at local food banks.

The many furloughed employees and contractors present state agencies and local groups with a new problem and they’ve had to make changes in staffing and structure to keep Floridians healthy and fed while dealing with their own shortages caused by the shutdown.

By Sunday, those who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will get their benefits for the month of February, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Florida, those who receive SNAP through the Department of Children and Families would normally get those benefits in the first 10 days of February.

Local impacts of the government shutdown could soon get worse. This timeline shows how.

Even though the federal budget bill expired on Dec. 21, a provision allows federal agencies to make payments up to 30 days after that date. Congress approved funding for SNAP through January.

According to the agency’s website, about 95 percent of the Department of Agriculture employees were furloughed as a result of the partial federal government shutdown.

Florida has one of the highest numbers of SNAP retailers in the country. Across the state 16,176 retailers redeemed nearly $4.8 billion in benefits last year, according to a Department of Agriculture fiscal report.

Of those retailers, 1,102 are in Hillsborough, 815 in Pinellas, 347 in Pasco, and 127 in Hernando.

Maria Alonso, president and chief executive of United Way of Miami Dade, first learned about the changes to the SNAP schedule from a reporter. The agency provides financial and health support to tens of thousands of local residents.

Alonso said the changes would likely add to the increased workload the nonprofit has already seen since the shutdown began in December. Call volumes from furloughed federal workers asking for family assistance have been steadily increasing, she said.

“The longer this goes on, the more complicated things will get and the greater the needs will be,” she said.

A plan by the Department of Children and Families plans to notify those who receive SNAP benefits is still in the works, but food banks already are thinking about what happens next.

The federal closure means an uncertain future not only for low-income people receiving benefits but also puts applications for SNAP licenses on hold, as well as funding for disaster assistance nutrition programs and even commodity programs for food banks to help with storage, distribution and warehouse space.

At Feeding South Florida, one of 14 regional distribution centers for the nonprofit Feeding Florida, federal employees and contractors who normally don’t need help paying for food have come to the facility for support. Sari Vatske, Feeding South Florida’s executive vice president, said she’s received letters from agents with the Transportation Security Administration, federal court staff and others in need of groceries and asking whether they would qualify for SNAP.

But even employees of the food banks can’t get answers, because the people who could answer the questions are on furlough.

“If people who are technically employed but not receiving money need food, what’s going to happen? Are new people going to be eligible?” Vatske said.

In Tampa, Feeding Tampa Bay and United Way Suncoast are providing a daily pop-up food bank at Tampa International Airport for federal employees with the TSA, the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“If this does continue, we are going to see a huge impact on our food bank network,” said Javci Peters, spokeswoman for Feeding Tampa Bay. “We have a plan in place.”

The nonprofit helps supply about 550 food banks serving some 700,000 people in the 10-county area it covers, many of whom received assistance through SNAP.

If the shutdown continues and more people need help in March, the nonprofit will certainly need more food donations and might open additional food banks.

Another option is adding evening shifts to a mobile fleet of 20 refrigerated trucks that can carry up to 8,000 pounds of food, typically to neighborhoods with the highest need. Peters said the trucks currently make 25 trips a month.

“We could look at evening hours, adding to the fleet — there are any number of options,” Peters said.

“We are approaching this like a hurricane,” Peters said. “It is unexpected and we have uncertainty.”

In addition to federal employees, contractors and SNAP recipients, the state’s school lunch program, breakfast program and fresh fruits and vegetables program are also at risk. They are administered through the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness and funded quarterly, to the tune of $200 million for January through March.

Even if the shutdown lasts until March, the department says it will look to pull in money from other state funds and ask schools to hold off on reimbursement requests.

“Despite the shutdown, we have an obligation — moral and legal — to fund a nutritious lunch and breakfast in every school across our state,” said Commissioner Nikki Fried, who spent the day before her inauguration volunteering at Second Harvest food bank in Tallahassee. “It’s the foundation upon which our children are prepared to succeed each school day. We will continue working with federal partners and our department’s divisions to provide these meals.”

Times staff writer Paul Guzzo and Miami Herald staff writer Rob Wile contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the status of applications for the SNAP program. The Florida Department of Children and Families is still accepting and processing SNAP applications after Jan. 20.