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'Very difficult': Florida opts out of federal grocery subsidy for 2 million low-income children

FILE - Food service assistant Brenda Bartee, rear, gives students breakfast in August, 2021, at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
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AP
FILE - Food service assistant Brenda Bartee, rear, gives students breakfast in August, 2021, at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.

The program was created to help low-income families with groceries during the summer months, when it’s harder for children to get free meals at school. The decision to opt out, during an affordability crisis, surprised nonprofit leaders.

Florida has opted out of a federal program that nonprofits say could decrease food insecurity for low-income families during the summer, when children no longer have easy access to school meals.

State officials decided not to participate in SUN Bucks, which would have given qualifying families $120 per child for grocery expenses. It was one of 13 states to opt out of the program, all of them led by Republican governors.

The decision surprised Madelyn Llanes, executive director for Centro Mater Childcare Center in Little Havana, who told WLRN families need all the help they can get — particularly with the current affordability crisis.

“Healthy food is so expensive because of the cost of living [and] rent,” Llanes said. “Especially when you have two or three kids – it becomes very, very difficult.”

While the child food insecurity rate has been declining, according to government health data, more than 13% of children in South Florida experienced food insecurity in 2021. According to No Kid Hungry, over 2.1 million children in Florida would have benefitted from SUN Bucks, which is also known as Summer EBT.

Officials for Florida’s Department of Children and Families say existing programs are enough — and argue that the federal program came with "strings attached" in the shape of operational costs that would be shared with the state.

“Healthy food is so expensive because of the cost of living [and] rent. Especially when you have two or three kids – it becomes very, very difficult.”
Madelyn Llanes

Currently, the state runs Summer Breakspot, which is part of a nationwide program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all children during summer break at certain schools, community centers, nonprofits and religious institutions.

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But Christopher Bosso, a professor of public policy and politics at Northeastern University, says that many low-income students don't have ways of getting to place-based free food centers.

“If you’re in rural or suburban areas where you need a car, [getting free meals] may not be so easy,” Bosso said. “This program was designed to plug that gap, so all you had to do is go to your local grocery store and buy food.”

In fact, according to the Food Action and Research Center, less than 10% of Florida children who get free or reduced-price meals during the school year received a meal during the summer. But all families on food stamps or with children receiving free or reduced-price school meals automatically qualify for SUN Bucks.

A pilot study found that the program would improve child nutrition and food security. “When you put extra money in people’s pocket, they use it for healthier food,” said Bosso.

Sherina Jones, the founder of Village Freedge and Pantry, a food pantry in Liberty City, says a grocery subsidy would allow families to buy and eat food they’re familiar with, instead of having to manage with whatever food they’re given in a free summer meal.

“What if a child picks up this lunch bag and out of 15 items that's in a bag, they only like 2 of the items?” Jones said. “So you have items going to the trash and not only food in the trash, that's money going in the trash.”

At her nonprofit, Jones surveys the people who come to the pantry to see what they enjoy eating. She adds that school meals aren’t the most effective at encouraging children to eat healthier foods because they serve the fruits and vegetables without teaching and familiarizing kids with it first.

“I see [schools] give the children salads, but what if a child never ate a salad before? That’s not something they’re going to want to eat.” Jones said.

In a statement to WLRN, a DCF spokesperson said that “Over the past ten years, [existing] programs have been remarkably successful. We anticipate that our state’s full approach to serving children will continue to be successful this year without any additional federal programs that inherently always come with some federal strings attached.”

Copyright 2024 WLRN Public Media

Anita Li