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Florida hasn’t asked for $820 million in federal food assistance for children

The DeSantis administration hasn’t applied for a federal food aid program, part of a larger effort by the governor to return life to normal.
Feeding Tampa Bay volunteers (Left to right) Nicaury Garcia, 17, Marianny Moreta, 17, and Ivanna Ferreras, 18, help load cars with food on the USF Tampa campus Monday, March 9, 2021.
One year into the pandemic , the nonprofit is still stretched trying to meet the need of hungry Tampa Bay Families. While most focus is on lines for a vaccine, the group recently held its 300th mega pantry where lines for boxes of groceries still stretch around the block. The pandemic meant wholesale changes to how the group operates with more emphasis on cooked meals and a massive expansion of its food operation. It was forced to open a second warehouse and increase the number of volunteers by more than 1,000. It expects the level of need will continue for most of 2021.
Feeding Tampa Bay volunteers (Left to right) Nicaury Garcia, 17, Marianny Moreta, 17, and Ivanna Ferreras, 18, help load cars with food on the USF Tampa campus Monday, March 9, 2021. One year into the pandemic , the nonprofit is still stretched trying to meet the need of hungry Tampa Bay Families. While most focus is on lines for a vaccine, the group recently held its 300th mega pantry where lines for boxes of groceries still stretch around the block. The pandemic meant wholesale changes to how the group operates with more emphasis on cooked meals and a massive expansion of its food operation. It was forced to open a second warehouse and increase the number of volunteers by more than 1,000. It expects the level of need will continue for most of 2021. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Aug. 24

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has not yet applied for up to $820 million in food assistance to more than 2 million Florida children, raising concerns from food assistance groups and others who note that child hunger remains a significant problem.

The federal program, called the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, was created last year to help feed children who missed meals because they weren’t attending schools in person during the pandemic. The program deposits money to a card for families of children who qualify for free or reduced meals at their school. It was created by the federal government last year to ensure children were still being fed while they attended school remotely.

Florida participated in the program during the previous school year, estimating in its application that the state would be eligible for $1.2 billion to feed 1.2 million children from August 2020 through June 2021.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the program through this summer, however, the state did not apply.

That means parents of children who qualify for free or reduced lunches are missing out on an extra $375 to help pay for their kids’ meals this summer. The program would pay $2.26 for breakfast, $3.60 for lunch and $0.96 for a snack for an estimated 2.1 million children in Florida each day.

There is no deadline for the state to apply, meaning parents could still retroactively receive the money for this summer even as students return to classes. In Virginia, a $375 lump sum is expected to hit recipients’ Electronic Benefit Transfer cards this week.

The state has had since April to apply, causing observers to fear the state is choosing not to participate. Florida is the largest state not to apply to the program.

“It’s a very troubling trend that we’re leaving money on the table to feed people in need, at no cost to Floridians,” said Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst for the Florida Policy Institute, a progressive think tank.

Huddleston said the Department of Children and Families, which handles the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and other food assistance programs, hasn’t told her whether they will apply for the summer program.

Neither DeSantis’ office nor the Department of Children and Families responded Monday to questions about whether the state planned to apply for the money.

Related: Tampa Bay nonprofits help prevent hunger in a year like no other

Despite Florida’s improved economic picture compared to earlier in the pandemic, food insecurity remains a problem for many Florida children. A U.S. Census Bureau survey of Florida households from June and July this year found that 14 percent of adults reported that their kids were not eating enough because the household could not afford food.

DeSantis in recent months has pushed aggressively for life to return to normal, even if it means Floridians missing out on billions of dollars in federal benefits.

When he allowed the state’s pandemic state of emergency to expire over the summer, it caused SNAP recipients to lose about $280 million in additional federal benefits each month. In May, he chose to stop jobless Floridians from receiving an additional $300 in federal unemployment benefits each week, an effort, he said, to get people to return to work.

The state has also been slow to roll out other federal help; as of late July, it had distributed 2 percent of federal rent aid.

Related: Florida has disbursed 2 percent of rent aid as eviction moratorium ends

Collectively, those programs helped stabilize children and families during the pandemic, said Thomas Mantz, CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, a food bank that provides meals for families in 10 counties.

When the pandemic closed schools last year, it contributed to a 400 to 500 percent increase in demand for his organization.

“Suddenly, kids that were getting food in school weren’t any longer,” Mantz said.

That demand has gone down dramatically in large part to the variety of federal assistance programs. But as those programs expire, he said he fears demand could increase.

“The need is still pretty significant,” Mantz said.