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Tampa Bay nonprofits on front line of pandemic say expansion of food stamp program urgently needed

Metropolitan Ministries and Feeding Tampa Bay say families need more than food banks.

TAMPA — Drive-through food pantries have become a new way of life for thousands of Tampa Bay families hit by job losses during the pandemic.

The nonprofit group Feeding Tampa Bay is serving 10,000 families per week at “mega pantries” in five local counties. Metropolitan Ministries has given out 22,000 food boxes in the past four months.

But food pantries are far from efficient, relying on costly delivery trucks and long waits for families in car lines. Also, many needy families lack their own transportation, and there is no guarantee the groceries will match the dietary needs of a whole family.

Feeding Tampa Bay and Metropolitan Ministries, which have helped lead food relief efforts in Tampa Bay, say families will need more help over the next few months. They are lending their voices to a campaign calling on the federal government to increase food stamp benefits by at least 15 percent during the pandemic.

“It’s more dignified for a family to be able to go to a grocery store and pick up what they need, versus having to go to a food bank and stand in line,” said Tim Marks, the chief executive officer and president of Metropolitan Ministries.

At the federal level, Feeding Tampa Bay’s parent organization, Feeding America, is leading lobbying efforts to expand the program known as the Supplemental Assistance Nutritional Program, or SNAP. It has been joined by former U.S. Department of Agriculture secretaries, Dan Glickman, who served under President Bill Clinton, and Ann M. Veneman, who served under President George W. Bush.

SNAP is the federal food stamp program. [ Florida Department of Children and Families ]

SNAP gives low-income individuals and families an electronic benefits card, similar to a debit card, that can be used to buy food grocery items. It cannot be used for items such as alcohol, cigarettes or hot foods.

“We have to employ every resource to keep families stable as long as we can until there is an economic rebound,” said Feeding Tamp Bay President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Mantz. “Families can use SNAP dollars more effectively than donated food.”

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

Almost 2.1 million Floridians have filed unemployment claims since March. Many of them are now relying on SNAP, state data shows.

The number of Florida households receiving the benefit has risen from 1.4 million in February to more than 2 million in May, an increase of almost 40 percent. Payouts in May totaled more than $673 million.

Tampa Bay counties recorded a similar uptick in participation, with almost 80,000 households in Pinellas and 145,000 households in Hillsborough now receiving the benefit.

The Florida Department of Children and Families, which administers the program in Florida, was awarded several federal waivers to help families during the pandemic.

Benefits cards can now be used to pay for online groceries from Amazon and Walmart. The state also has extended through July a rule allowing recipients to receive the maximum benefit based on household size. Those who already were eligible for the maximum have not received an increase. For a family of four, the maximum monthly benefit is $646.

Families whose children lost out on meals as a result of schools closing may be eligible for additional payments, and Florida suspended a requirement for face-to-face interviews, which they previously needed to qualify.

Those changes were funded largely through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which pumped an extra $2.2 billion into the program nationwide.

Mantz, the Feeding Tampa Bay leader, said he has spoken with local members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, about the need to expand the program.

Castor already voted for the expansion, which was included in the HEROES Act passed by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But the bill has not progressed in the U.S. Senate, as Republicans and Democrats have clashed over the details of a second stimulus package.

“Expanding SNAP helps ensure that children and families have healthy, nutritious meals in a time of economic stress,” Castor said in an email. “I know that CARES Act aid from Congress made a difference to families by boosting Feeding Tampa Bay, but more must be done right away to ensure our neighbors have healthy meals.”

Bilirakis said the CARES Act increased SNAP funding by $15.3 billion to cover newly eligible households and provided enhanced funding to local food banks.

“As this pandemic continues to negatively impact constituents’ finances, we must continually evaluate where unmet needs exist and the most effective ways to address those issues,” he said in an email.

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