‘I just want a little help’: Florida parents say confusing messaging leads to SNAP benefit gaps

Confusing messaging is coming from the Florida Department of Children and Families about whether help is available to over a million Florida students who rely on free and reduced school lunches.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Confusing messaging is coming from the Florida Department of Children and Families about whether help is available to over a million Florida students who rely on free and reduced school lunches.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first reported last week that applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits hit a record high and that the state was working to expand eligibility to anyone whose child received free and reduced lunch at school. Now, she’s learned Florida is not one of the first 20 states approved for that additional federal aid.

That status could change as DCF actively works with the Department of Agriculture to enact what’s known as a P-EBT program, or pandemic-EBT. Some parents said though that DCF hasn’t made it clear that the program is not in place, and they’re learning the hard way after putting in applications weeks ago.

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Deborah Overton and her husband are lucky to still be working during this pandemic, but like many, their hours have been reduced.

“Just because we have the great blessing of being able to keep working doesn’t mean we’re not struggling,” Overton said.

Overton is one of the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who applied for SNAP benefits. She thought her family was eligible because her daughter receives free lunch from her elementary school in Oviedo.

DCF notes on its website that the agency is working with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to allow families like hers to receive SNAP benefits, but her application was denied.

“I’m not asking for everything in the world, not cash assistance and all that. I just want a little help with the groceries for the house,” Overton said.

At least 20 other states have successfully implemented P-EBT programs, but Florida’s application is still working its way through the federal system. Questions to DCF’s public information officer, David Ocasio, about the status of Florida’s program went unanswered.

Florida Department of Education data shows more than 1 million students qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunches in the state, which is well over one-third of the entire student population. Overton wonders how many others have applied and have been denied.

“Most of them may already have food benefits, but there are some right on the border, like me, who have had hours cut at work, and then everything is turned upside down,” Overton said.

9 Investigates found applications for cash or food assistance through the Department of Children and Families spiked in March to a two-decade high of more than 264,000 new requests for help.