Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and one of his Democratic gubernatorial challengers, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, are butting heads over programs designed to help feed low-income children.
Florida is the only state in the U.S. that has not applied for the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program this year, according to Fried's office. The federal program provides states grocery benefits for children. The Trump administration created the benefit last year to make sure children were still being fed while schools were operating remotely.
During the 2020-2021 school year, the Pandemic-EBT program helped feed about 1.2 million distance learning students in Florida, according to the state Department of Children and Families.
Gov. DeSantis is facing mounting criticism for not re-applying for the program, which was extended under the Biden administration, over the summer and into this school year. Last month more than 80 advocacy groups joined together to urge DeSantis to apply for the program, and last week more than 30 Democratic state lawmakers signed a letter to the same effect.
However, the governor’s Press Secretary Christina Pushaw says Floridians don’t need the program because children are back in school.
In an email to WJCT News, she said, “As we continue to support families and students with in-person education, Florida’s public schools have resumed normal operations, and schools are open in every county in our state. Therefore, students receive high-quality nutrition directly from our schools.”
She went on to question Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose department is responsible for administering the Summer Food Service Program, another federal program aimed at helping feed low-income children.
“Unless FDACS [the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services] failed in this mission, free meals were available for children and teens throughout the state through SFSP, branded as Summer BreakSpot, every day during summer vacation this year,” Pushaw went on to write. “As far as we are aware, all students in need were able to access nutrition through SFSP during summer break. If this program was not managed appropriately under Commissioner Fried and children suffered as a result, Floridians need to know that."
Fried’s Deputy Communications Director Caroline Stonecipher said on average, the Summer BreakSpot Program serves between 14 million and 16 million meals per summer to children across Florida. This past summer, it served over 18.5 million meals and added about 1,400 more Summer BreakSpot meal sites across the state.
Stonecipher also said children’s return to school is not a justification for failing to apply for the Pandemic-EBT program because the USDA’s guidance makes it clear that unlike last year, the summer and 2021-2022 school year Pandemic-EBT benefits are meant to help children who have to be quarantined or attend virtual classes as their schools grapple with COVID outbreaks, leaving them without access to free or reduced price meals that are available at school.
“Summer Food Service Program regulations only allow two meals or a meal and a snack to be served each day – leaving a meal gap for food-insecure children that could easily be filled with P-EBT,” she wrote in an email to WJCT News. “The USDA, in its guidance regarding the implementation of Summer P-EBT, fully anticipated children to be able to receive meals through the Summer Food Service Program, administered by FDACS, and P-EBT benefits for the same days during the summer, as not all Summer Food Service Program sites offer weekend and holiday meals.”
“Summer food assistance programs, while providing a crucial service to hungry children, have difficulty addressing the full extent of needs because child hunger is such a huge issue – which is why it’s crucial for children to be able to access both supplemental programs,” Stonecipher said.
If Florida were to apply for the Pandemic-EBT program, families could receive the summer funds retroactively.