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Florida kids to receive over $1B in school lunch relief

September 30, 2021 GMT

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — After weeks of controversy that became a political issue between Gov. Ron DeSantis and one of his potential rivals in the 2022 gubernatorial election, Florida children are set to receive over $1 billion in federal relief funding.

State Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried said Florida’s plan for Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer funding was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program will give a one-time grant of $375 per child to each family that qualifies.

The program was created last year by Congress to assist children who lost access to free and reduced school lunch in the wake of the transition to virtual instruction. Florida signed up for the program for the 2020-2021 school year, but the Department of Children and Families elected not to reapply after the program was extended into the summer.

Fried, who is currently running against U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, complained in a letter to the governor Aug. 25 that his administration should apply for the relief funds retroactively.

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“The people of Florida cannot afford for you to leave money on the table, especially when it means leaving food off their tables,” the letter said.

DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said the federal program was intended to provide benefits for children who were not attending schools due to pandemic-related closures, but schools remained open in Florida.

The Department of Children and Families changed course, announcing Sept. 21 that Florida would, in fact, apply for the aid, becoming the final state to do so. Agency spokeswoman Mallory McManus shifted the blame to Fried, saying the department would submit an application to cover for “any possible gaps” left by the Summer Breakspot program, a separate program administered by Fried’s agency that provided meals to children in need.

Fried turned the focus back to the impact P-EBT will have for families in need. She said she could not explain the delay in requesting the funding, only that she knew its importance.

“This is a huge victory for the children of our state and for our families who are struggling during these times,” she said.

Sky Beard, the director of No Kid Hungry Florida, said more than one in five children in the state live in a “food insecure” home.

“We know that hungry kids really just can’t learn,” Beard said.

Fried said with funding for the summer secured, the focus will now shift toward pushing the DCF for the next round of aid, which covers the current school year.

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at thomasholton@ufl.edu.