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$820M Left On Table For Low-Income Children, Food Assistance Groups Warn

The federal funds are earmarked for low-income children who receive free and reduced lunch, to help offset the cost of feeding them at home this summer.

Florida has yet to submit an application for a federal program that would provide $820 million to the state's low-income children.

The Summer Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program provides federal funding, at no cost, to states to provide grocery benefits to children who missed out on free or reduced-price meals while their schools or child care facilities were closed.

“During the initial onslaught of the pandemic last March, and April, when schools shut down, one of the unintended outcomes was many children suddenly had no place to get food," said Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay.

Much like the standard EBT program, this money would be deposited onto cards for qualifying children. The program was created by the federal government last year to make sure children were still being fed while they attended school remotely.

For the 2020-21 school year, the Department of Children & Families estimates the P-EBT program provided assistance to about 1.2 million Florida distance learning students.

It's not too late to get the summer funds, said Cindy Huddleston of the Florida Policy Institute, which works to advance policies to improve economic mobility and quality of life.

"It's a program that is 100% federally funded by the federal government,” Huddleston said. “And it's a program that's earmarked to feed hungry, low-income children. It just doesn't make sense to turn your back on this program."

Florida participated in the program during the previous school year, but did not apply when the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the program through this summer.

Only a few states have not taken advantage of the program.

That means parents of children who qualify for free or reduced lunches are missing out on an extra $375 to be used for breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and plants and seeds to grow food.

Mantz said interest in Feeding Tampa Bay’s services went up about 400% during the first part of the pandemic, and has plateaued at about 35% more interest than during pre-pandemic years.

But the delta variant has them concerned, and it’s possible schools could be shut down temporarily as the virus spreads. Some parents have pulled their children out of the system all together as the debate over mandatory masks rages on.

“We know that some kids will not go to school for any number of reasons. They may not go to school, because they're not comfortable with the particular policy that a school is enacted. We're trying to make sure that we are prepared for any circumstance,” Mantz said.

“I think this is where using funds that are available could be helpful to all of us to make sure that we take care of any kid that suddenly loses access to school during the day.”

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.