TALLAHASSEE — Child hunger groups and Florida’s top elected Democrat urged Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday to tap into $820 million in federal aid money that would provide meals for more than 2 million children in low-income households.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said it was “unconscionable” that DeSantis’ administration hasn’t requested the money, which has no strings attached. All the state has to do it ask, Fried said.
“Every day that this aid is delayed is another night where a child would go to bed hungry that could have been prevented,” said Fried, a Democrat looking to challenge DeSantis’ re-election next year. “The people of Florida can’t afford the governor leaving money on the table.”
Why the DeSantis administration has not applied for the money is unclear. Neither his office nor the Department of Children and Families, which would distribute the money, has responded to requests for comment this week.
Demand for food assistance has surged during the pandemic, especially for students who depended on free and reduced meals at schools. When schools shifted to online learning last year, the federal government set up the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program to make sure those students were still being fed.
The program deposits money to a card for families of children who qualify for free or reduced meals. The money can only be used to pay for food.
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.
But when the government extended the program through this summer, Florida didn’t apply. That means that more than 2.1 million children have not received an extra $375, or $6.82 per day, to help pay for meals this summer.
There’s no deadline to apply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning parents could still receive the money retroactively.
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.
Organizations that provide food assistance to families pleaded with the governor on Thursday to request the money.
“I cannot convey how important it is that Gov. DeSantis leverages this money, gets it into our communities and doesn’t leave it on the table,” said Lynne Kunins, founder of FLIPANY, a nonprofit based in South Florida that provides meals and education to children, on Thursday.
DeSantis has resisted billions of dollars in federal aid money for Floridians as he pushes for life to return to normal this summer. 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.