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Debate grows over calls for Florida governor to apply for money to feed children

Florida families would get $375 for food for their children through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla โ€” Calls are growing for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to apply for federal money to feed Florida's children.

Signatures are being collected and voices are getting louder as lawmakers apply pressure. They want Florida to apply for $820 million that sits on the table in pandemic relief to feed kids. 

The governor's office states the program, which began at the start of the pandemic when students were going to school virtually, is no longer necessary.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program is for families whose kids qualify for free or reduced meals. Florida families would get $375 for food for their children in food stamps. Florida is one of the only states to not apply.

Florida Rep. Angie Nixon is organizing a petition, talking with more elected officials, and raising awareness. Last week, more than 30 other Florida lawmakers signed her letter to DeSantis asking him to apply for the federal aid.

"We are leaving $820 million on the table and that's really ridiculous," Nixon said. "If folks are asking and demanding that he apply for these benefits, he should do it because he works for the community. Oftentimes, kids only get food at school because sometimes their parents are having such a difficult time making ends meet and they don't qualify for things, possibly, as regular food stamps or it's so low."

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One in five kids in Duval County doesn't have reliable access to food, Feeding America reports. Of the food insecure children in Duval, more than 30% are likely not eligible for federal nutrition programs.

First Coast News asked the governor about not applying for the money. In an emailed response, his office states that because schools are back open in person, "students receive high-quality nutrition directly from our schools."

They state because of other pandemic funding, students in quarantine can still get food assistance and that, "as far as we are aware, all students in need were able to access nutrition" through programs over summer break.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson has also called on the governor to apply for the federal dollars and Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried hosted a virtual roundtable on the topic Wednesday.

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See the governor's office's full response to First Coast News' inquiry below:

"The federal government created the Pandemic EBT program last year with a clearly defined purpose: To provide additional benefits for households with children who temporarily lost access to free and reduced-price school meals due to school closures.

In Florida, unlike many other states, Governor DeSantis has ensured that in-person education is available to all students. This was true for the entire past academic year and remains the case today. As we continue to support families and students with in-person education, Floridaโ€™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.

Florida school districts have received ESSER funds to provide additional services for students in the event any student is sent home due to COVID exposure or infection. Therefore, students who are temporarily unable to go to school are still getting the food assistance they need. Florida is now up to #6 nationally in terms of total percentage of ESSER spending, as compared to the other states and D.C.  (Reference: https://covid-relief-data.ed.gov/). Despite what is sometimes said nationally, Floridaโ€™s school districts are actually amongst the leaders in ESSER spending.

Some politicians, including Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, have raised concerns about nutrition for students while schools were on break over the summer. It is important to note that the state agency charged with ensuring summer nutrition for students while schools are on break is in fact Friedโ€™s agency, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is federally funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is state administered in Florida by FDACS. Unless FDACS 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.

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."

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Find a food distribution near you on Feeding Northeast Florida's calendar here. 

Farm Share is hosting drive-through food distributions Thursday and Friday at the following locations and times:

Event: Farm Share food distribution with Philadelphia MB (Serving 200 households)
Date: Thursday, Sept. 16, from 9 a.m. until supplies last
Location: 5577 Moncrief Road, Jacksonville, Fla. 32209

Event: Farm Share food distribution with First Baptist Church Callahan (Serving 400 households)
Date: Thursday, Sept. 16, from 4:30 p.m. until supplies last
Location: 45090 Green Ave., Callahan, Fla. 32011

Event: Farm Share food distribution with Councilman Reggie Gaffney and Family Dollar Shopping Center & CRC (Serving 400 households)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 18, from 9 a.m. until supplies last
Location: 10696 Lem Turner Road, Jacksonville, Fla. 32218

Event: Farm Share food distribution with State Rep. Tracie Davis and Open Arms Christian Fellowship (Serving 400 households)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 18, from 9 a.m. until supplies last
Location: 2763 Dunn Ave. # 1, Jacksonville, Fla. 32218

Event: Farm Share food distribution with Lake Butler (Serving 300 households)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 18, from 9 a.m. until supplies last
Location: 155 NW 3rd St., Lake Butler, Fla. 32054

RELATED: List: Free food events across the First Coast