Nobody’s going to bed hungry tonight in the governor’s mansion. Too bad that’s not the case across the state. Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis is apparently leaving up to $820 million in federal food assistance on the table, and he won’t explain why. Does he have a reason? Or is it just a really bad one?
More than four months after Florida could have first applied for the aid, the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported this week, it remains 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 calling on DeSantis to seek the money. But DeSantis’ office hasn’t answered repeated questions from the Times/Herald about the status of any request. Last week, the governor’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, didn’t directly answer the question, replying instead that Florida students can “receive high-quality nutrition directly from our schools.”
The quality of school lunches isn’t the issue. The question is whether Florida will tap available federal aid. And implying that schools are already meeting these nutritional needs ignores the fact that many children have little or nothing to eat once the school day ends.
Known as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, the federal program deposits money to a card for families of children who qualify for free or reduced meals at school. It was created by the federal government last year to ensure that children would still be fed during the pandemic if they weren’t attending in-person instruction.
The federal 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. But Florida was one of a handful that didn’t join when the program was extended through the summer. If the state doesn’t apply, 2.1 million children from low-income households in Florida will miss out on a benefit worth about $375 per child, or $820 million across the state. There is no deadline to apply, and parents can retroactively receive the money even as students return to classrooms. In Virginia, for example, a $375 lump sum is expected to hit recipients this week.
DeSantis is doing everything he can to paint a picture that Florida is largely post-pandemic. That’s ridiculous, of course, with the delta variant surging, and with infections, hospitalizations and deaths rising in Florida. And while the state’s economic picture has improved as society has reopened, food insecurity remains a problem for many Florida children. A U.S. Census Bureau survey of Florida households from June and July this year found that 14 percent of adults reported their kids were not eating enough because the household could not afford it.
Millions of Floridians are still playing catch-up from COVID’s devastating financial hit. Is DeSantis blind to this reality or does denying it merely change the news cycle and play to his Republican base? Whatever his reason for not applying, the governor owes Floridians an explanation. That’s real money to millions who need it, and it would give a timely jolt to Florida’s economy. Is there any justification here or is DeSantis merely politicking on the backs of hungry Floridians?
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