DeSantis urged to seek up to $820 million in food aid for children

A spokesperson implies that it’s not needed since the state has reopened schools, but federal guidance states that it’s not a qualifying factor.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published Aug. 30, 2021|Updated Aug. 30, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — More than four months after Florida first could have applied for up to $820 million in food aid, it’s still unclear if state officials are seeking the money — which is enough to feed 2.1 million children in low income homes.

More than 80 advocacy groups, including the food bank Feeding Tampa Bay, signed on to a letter Monday urging DeSantis to request the federal aid.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office hasn’t answered repeated questions from the Times/Herald over the past week about the aid’s status.

The money comes with no mandates or required matching funds. At least 42 other states, including those led by Republican governors, have tapped into the extra money.

Known as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, the federal money is intended to alleviate a problem the pandemic caused last year: How do kids get their free and reduced lunches when schools are closed?

The government created a workaround: deposit money onto electronic cards for parents to buy food for their children.

Although Florida participated in the program during the last school year, the state was one of a handful not to join when the program was extended through this summer.

On Friday, a DeSantis spokesperson wrote a reply to the Times/Herald after she was sent a series of questions earlier in the week asking about the money — specifically, whether any request has been made and, if not, why that would be.

If the state isn’t applying, 2.1 million children from low-income households in Florida will miss out on an extra $6.82 per day to pay for breakfast, lunch and a snack for this summer. In total, it’s about $375 per child to pay for food, or $820 million across the state.

Spokesperson Christina Pushaw didn’t directly answer the questions in her response. Instead, she replied that Florida schools have resumed “normal operations” and, therefore, every student can “receive high-quality nutrition directly from our schools.”

Pushaw also stated that the purpose of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which Florida participated in last year, was to provide aid for children who “temporarily lost access to free and reduced-price school meals due to pandemic-related closures and virtual learning.”

“Schools are not remote in Florida, and children receive nutrition directly from schools,” she wrote in an email to the Times/Herald.

Yet federal guidance released in April states that the extra $6.82 per day is available to “all children who were eligible to receive free or reduced price meals during the current school year.”

In other words, the federal money is available for those kids regardless of whether they have returned to in-person classes. All the state has to do is ask.

Pushaw’s response is also “nonresponsive” to the requests of child hunger groups in Florida, said Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst for the Florida Policy Institute, a progressive think tank.

“There’s still a need for the program, even though schools are in session now,” Huddleston said. “The summer (program) is a way for families with low income to get relief, because they’re still playing catchup from their food costs this summer.”

A U.S. Census Bureau survey of Florida households from June and July found that 14 percent of adults reported that their kids were not eating enough because the household could not afford food.

Summer months are considered difficult for low-income children. In the summer, less than 20 percent of children who qualify for free and reduced lunches actually receive the meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.