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Food stamps provide much-needed aid during holidays amid a pandemic

Experts and anti-hunger groups are urging state and federal governments to continue offering SNAP flexibility or to do more.

This story has been updated to reflect that the state’s website now says recipients will also get the maximum monthly allotments in December.

Latanya Sutton starts compulsively checking the Florida Department of Children and Families website toward the end of each month, looking for an update on how much she’ll have to buy groceries for the next month.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state has temporarily been giving Floridians in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — previously known as food stamps — the maximum amount of benefits based on household size.

It’s an extra boost that’s been much-needed help to Sutton and her family of eight children. And she’s hoping it doesn’t go away until long after the holidays are over.

In May, Sutton’s part-time income helping her brother with his photography business disappeared after she said her brother contracted COVID-19 and closed up shop. Another side job babysitting also dried up in recent months, she said.

That left even less money than usual for groceries after other bills were paid. Sutton has three children with disabilities, including a 20-year-old daughter who is paralyzed and has a traumatic brain injury from a childhood car crash, Sutton said. Finding other work is difficult, especially when she struggles to find childcare for her kids.

The federal food benefits are meant to supplement a family’s food budget. But they’re a key, or even only, way for some families with little or no income to purchase food.

Experts and anti-hunger groups say the additional flexibility being offered amid the pandemic in the federal food assistance program has been crucial to struggling families. And as coronavirus case numbers continue to rise at alarming rates and economic uncertainty continues, some are urging state and federal governments to continue offering the flexibility or even to do more.

“Families don’t have many dominoes left standing and they need help now,” said Cindy Huddleston, senior policy analyst and attorney with the nonprofit research organization Florida Policy Institute.

Huddleston pointed to recent U.S. Census Bureau data showing soaring levels of food insecurity in Florida and across the U.S. amid the pandemic.

About 1.7 million adult Floridians, or more than 11 percent, reported that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous seven days, according to Household Pulse Survey census data collected from Oct. 28 to Nov. 9.

More than 414,000 Florida households with children reported being “not at all confident” they could afford food in the next four weeks.

That same survey found that nearly a fifth of adult Floridians who said they receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the previous seven days.

“Parents don’t know how they are going to put food on the table over the holidays,” Huddleston said.

She and others say provisions such as waiving work requirements for Floridians in the SNAP program or providing everyone the maximum amount of assistance based on their household size go a long way during the pandemic.

Huddleston said she’d like to see more transparency from the state, though, about its plans to continue helping struggling households as the pandemic rages.

The state Department of Children and Families, which administers the federal program, has often waited until the last minute to announce whether it will continue offering the maximum monthly allotments, leading families like Sutton’s to wonder and worry about how much they’ll have for food in the coming month.

Recipients generally receive aid based on a formula that estimates how much families have available to buy food, with a maximum amount provided based on the number of family members in a household. For a family of four, the maximum monthly allotment is now $680.

Sutton said that her family of nine is currently receiving the maximum of $1,377 per month. But without getting the maximum allotment, she said her monthly share will drop to only $163 a month. She said that’s because the money from her children’s disability benefits as well as income from her teenage son’s part-time job at a Zaxby’s fast-food restaurant are factored into the calculations.

The Department of Children and Families has not responded to questions sent a week ago asking whether the state will continue to extend offering the maximum monthly assistance to all recipients. But it has now updated its website to say that the maximum monthly assistance will be available in December, and that it is also continuing to postpone reinstating the work requirements for the so-called “able-bodied adults” under the age of 50 with no dependents in the program through the end of the year.

Huddleston said that not providing timely information about the program “causes enormous and unnecessary stress on persons trying to put a budget together for the month.”

On the federal level, Huddleston and others are urging Congress to pass another stimulus bill that would include a boost in federal food benefits during the pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign platform included a proposal to temporarily increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15 percent and to provide low-income families with $100 a month in “extra nutritional support.”

The 15 percent increase would give a family of four just under $100 extra per month in food assistance, according to the think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That money would particularly help the poorest families on food assistance, the Center said, including an estimated 750,000 Floridians who were already receiving the maximum monthly amount before the pandemic and so got no pandemic-related boost.

As of October, nearly 3.7 million Floridians were enrolled in SNAP, according to state data. That’s about 17 percent of the state’s total population.

The number of Floridians using the food assistance had been rising every month since February, according to state data. But in October, it dropped by about 6 percent compared to September.

The department did not respond to questions about what caused that decrease.

But Maria Ortiz, resource advocate with Daystar Life Center — a St. Petersburg nonprofit that offers a number of services to needy members of the community — said she suspects the decrease in participation in the program is due in large part to the end of a federal waiver that had delayed the requirement for recipients to reapply to continue to get aid.

The federal government had allowed states to waive that requirement at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure no disruptions in service. But that waiver lapsed in Florida and elsewhere in September.

Related: Florida food stamp recipients get another reprieve on work search requirements

Ortiz said some people did not know they needed to recertify until they’d already lost their benefits and others may have lost their benefits because they didn’t know how to get through the recertification process.

Community organizations like Daystar are working to help connect people in need to the federal food assistance program and also try to help fill the sometimes large gaps in food needs.

Tim Marks, chief executive officer of Metropolitan Ministries, said his organization is anticipating seeing about 50,000 families reaching out for help during Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, a huge increase from the 29,000 it served last year. He said about 40 percent of families reaching out right now are people who have never requested help from his organization before.

“Even with the maximum allotment right now, it’s still not enough,” said James Dunbar, senior director of outreach, prevention and community partnerships with Metropolitan Ministries.

Sutton’s Thanksgiving was a smaller family gathering than usual because of the pandemic, but she had still planned in advance to cook up a turkey and multiple side dishes, including her popular macaroni and cheese recipe.

Even with the extra food assistance in recent months, Sutton turned to Metropolitan Ministries for holiday meal help for Thanksgiving. Still, she said, the only reason her family is getting by right now is because she’s getting the maximum amount in federal food assistance.

She hopes it can continue a while longer.

Finding help

Feeding Tampa Bay hosts food distribution events nearly every day throughout its 10-county coverage area. You can find pantry locations at feedingtampabay.org/findfood. It also has partner pantries on its site where you can find a hot meal today or a place to pick up a box of groceries.

Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger operates Meals on Wheels in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and also has information on food pantries and offers assistance in applying for federal food assistance aid. Go to networktoendhunger.org/find-food to find a source near you. Call 813-344-5837 for more information.

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