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What to know about Florida’s food stamps program during the pandemic

The number of people needing to turn to assistance with getting food is growing in Florida amid the coronavirus.

The number of people needing assistance to get food is growing in Florida as unemployment climbs amid the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Florida, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP and once known as food stamps, is administered through the state’s Department of Children and Families.

In recent weeks, the state has worked to waive some of the program’s requirements and to temporarily increase recipients’ maximum benefits.

Working to handle a deluge of people, the department has also expanded customer call center hours.

Here’s what you need to know:

How does SNAP work?

Floridians making a gross income of less than or equal to 200 percent above the federal poverty line could potentially be eligible for SNAP. For a single person, that would equate to a gross income of $2,082 or less a month. The state’s website lays out full criteria and reasons why a person may be ineligible.

SNAP recipients get an electronic benefits card, similar to a debit card, that can be used to buy food grocery items. It cannot be used for things like alcohol, cigarettes or hot foods. In Florida, different recipients get their benefits on different days.

The federal government this month approved a waiver allowing Florida to launch a pilot program allowing SNAP recipients to buy groceries online with the benefits cards. Recipients are automatically eligible for the program. The program will initially begin at the five Tallahassee-area Walmarts, the state said; on April 21, the state said online purchasing at Walmart and Amazon will be available to recipients statewide.

How have benefits changed since the pandemic?

Florida has been granted a waiver from the federal government to allow all SNAP recipients to get the maximum allotment based on their household size. Those already receiving the maximum allotment would not see an increase. For a family of four, the maximum monthly benefit is $646. The current waiver covers March and April, but any extra money is being received in April.

Florida also got a waiver allowing it to extend certification for those currently on the food assistance program for an additional six months. The move would allow families whose certification is coming up soon more time to renew to better ensure there’s no interruptions in service.

And, following the federal Families First Coronavirus Act, Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to temporarily waive work requirements for those participating in the program.

How many people are we talking about here?

Given skyrocketing unemployment numbers, it’s likely that SNAP use will rise dramatically.

The Florida Department of Children and Families said it saw a 67 percent increase in the number of SNAP applications it received during the week of March 16 compared with the previous week.

The federal government, as part of a coronavirus relief bill, approved an additional $15.8 billion for SNAP. That’s meant to make sure the program has enough funding for a surge in the number of people requesting assistance, not for extra money for those already using the program, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center.

More than 1.47 million households in Floirda received SNAP benefits in February, according to data from the state. That includes nearly 106,000 in Hillsborough County, more than 58,000 in Pinellas County, 34,000 in Pasco County and 14,000 in Hernando County.

How is the state handling the uptick?

The state has extended its customer call center hours an extra hour in the morning and an extra hour at night. It is now open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Beginning April 11, the state also began manning its call center from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

Kyle O’Brien said he waited on hold for 2 hours and 45 minutes, trying to get help with his food stamp renewal application a few weeks ago. He said he used the phone line because he kept encountering a glitch in the online application system that kept knocking him out of the application.

When someone did pick up the phone, O’Brien said, he heard a few seconds of muffled voices before the phone clicked off. He was forced to call back again.

The Florida Department of Children and Families said on April 10 that its average hold time is now 28 minutes.

Yet some users continue to report long hold times to get through to a representative to help them navigate the system.

The state said on April 10 that its 300 call center employees served 370,000 individuals the prior week, and that it is looking into “other technologies and solutions” to better handle the influx of callers.

It said it has not had any issues with its website crashing.

I don’t currently need food assistance. Why should I care about this?

SNAP provides crucial support for people who are in need, and will be critical for those suffering amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“With people out of work and no income coming in, people need food assistance now,” said Cindy Huddleston, senior analyst and attorney with the Florida Policy Institute. “SNAP benefits are a known, effective and efficient way to help people with hunger.”

Joel Berg, chief executive of Hunger Free America, said there have been great stories about chefs donating meals and other charities stepping in amid the coronavirus. But he said that’s a small percentage of the hunger response needed.

Vollinger, with the Food Research and Action Center, said SNAP also helps stimulate the economy. She said the money that recipients receive go immediately to grocery stores in local communities. She said studies have shown that every dollar in SNAP generates somewhere between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.

How do I apply?

Floridians can apply online through the ACCESS portal, or by filling out and submitting a paper application. Paper applications can be downloaded from the state’s website.

Those with questions can call the customer service lines at 866-762-2237 or 850-300-4323; the department said applications can be done by phone, although it encouraged people to use this only as a last option, saying such a process could take up to an hour.

Huddleston said she is concerned about access for people who may not have online access and may not be able to leave their homes right now. She said the Department of Children and Families has temporarily closed its brick-and-mortar locations to the public but left drop-off boxes.

When asked how it is handling those situations, the department said that it currently receives more than 92 percent of its applications online and said that “other technology resources are available to assist current and new customers.”

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