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Floridians could have had $120 to help feed their kids; state opted out

Florida was one of 15 states that didn’t apply for the Summer EBT funds to feed needy children.
 
Ingredients for soup are seen in St. Petersburg in 2020.
Ingredients for soup are seen in St. Petersburg in 2020. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 23

Over the summer, needy families around the country will receive debit cards from the federal government to help feed hungry kids. But not in Florida, where the state opted out of a new federal program to provide grocery-store money for low-income families.

Under the program, called Summer EBT, families would have been able to apply to receive $120 for each eligible child. Congress approved the program in December 2022 to help feed children who receive free and reduced-price lunches at school during the summer months, when many campuses are closed or access is limited.

The deadline to apply was Jan. 1. Florida was one of 15 states that chose not to participate.

The state’s disinterest means the families of an estimated 2.1 million children who would have been eligible for the program won’t receive the additional help paying for grocery bills at a time when inflation continues to drive up food prices. In Florida, Miami and Tampa continue to see the highest rates of inflation in the country, with prices on average up more than 5% compared to last year.

While prices aren’t increasing as quickly as they were 18 months ago, Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, said that inflation continues to make it harder for low-income families to feed everyone in their household.

“People are facing really increased prices at the grocery stores that have not really waned much in the last few months, so getting food on the table can be a struggle for a lot of families,” said Huddleston.

When asked why the state opted out of the program, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ team forwarded the request for comment to Mallory McManus, a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Families. Neither office gave a response.

McManus previously told the Orlando Sentinel that Florida chose not to participate in Summer EBT because its current programs are sufficient.

“We anticipate that our state’s full approach to serving children will continue to be successful this year without any additional federal programs that inherently always come with some federal strings attached,” said McManus.

Summer EBT does require that states share half of the administrative costs for the program with the federal government, but Huddleston said that the overall economic and social benefit would greatly outweigh the administrative costs. Huddleston said that the state choosing not to participate in Summer EBT causes Florida to lose between $388 million and $466 million in economic impact, since the program would have families buy from local food sellers.

“So kids aren’t the only ones who lose out when we don’t participate in the program — local economies, local grocery stores, farmer markets … we’re all losers,” she said.

Help with hunger

While the state says its food programs are sufficient enough to successfully meet the needs of Florida’s hungry children, organizations that work closely with low-income families say that the state’s programs alone can’t always reach everyone in need.

Robin Safley, executive director of Feeding Florida, a statewide network of food banks, said that the state’s summer food program — called Summer BreakSpot, which provides meals to children during the summertime — is only reaching about 10% of kids in Florida that are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“A lot of the families that we serve may struggle with transportation. Especially during the summer, where parents are still working multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet and the child doesn’t have the ability to get to a summer feeding site,” said Safley.

The food bank organization provided 404 million pounds of food to families in need last fiscal year, according to their website, and Safley says the demand for food hasn’t decreased. If the state chooses to opt into Summer EBT in the future, she said it would be valuable for those who are struggling to put food on the table.

“It definitely hits a niche because it’s going directly to the family for them to go into the marketplace and purchase their own food, and that family unit then doesn’t have to go find a summer feeding spot … it would be an incredibly beneficial tool,” said Safley.

Echoing Safley, Malika Rushdan, a director at ICNA Relief, which provides services like hunger prevention to people across the country and has food pantries in Florida, said that many summer lunch programs in the U.S. have limitations. Rushdan also said that factors like stigma and limited food options are also a problem with current summer food programs.

“There’s no choice. You have what they give you and most are grateful for that, but it’s still not the same as being able to walk into a grocery store and buy what you need,” said Rushdan.

There’s always next year

Some other Republican states like Florida have also decided not to participate in Summer EBT. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a close ally of DeSantis, is among those who rejected funds from the program, which she criticized for not having a “strong nutrition focus.” Other governors raised concerns about the program’s administrative costs, saying the program amounted to “welfare.”

To Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, it is “troubling” to see Republican governors shut out a federal fund intended to help needy families during the summer months for what she says are ideological reasons.

“We already have situations where a lot of children go hungry and here we have an opportunity to get federal funds, which are our tax dollars, and our governor is declining that federal aid for purely political reasons,” Berman said.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she expects there will be conversations in the future to see if the state needs to take any action as a result of opting out of the federal program. But as of now, she does not foresee any problems. “I think that is something that is a discussion that we are going to need to have,” Passidomo said.

While families in the state will miss out on Summer EBT this year, the state does have a chance to opt into the program for 2025.

“Those that do not launch the program this summer will have future opportunities to opt-in, and we will keep working with every state and tribe to set them up for success in doing so. Working with future implementers is a top priority,” said a USDA spokesperson in an email.

— Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.