As Food Insecurity Grows After Irma, Gov't Approves Disaster SNAP. But It Will Take Time To Start

Sep 22, 2017

Rows of brightly colored chairs are set up on the little patch of grass outside FANM, the Haitian Women of Miami, a non-profit group that helps low-income families.

People sit in the Miami heat--some with toddlers in their laps--waiting to fill out FEMA applications and see what other kinds of help they can get in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The storm hit lower-income communities particularly hard. Days without power caused their limited food supplies to spoil and kept local schools closed, meaning many children didn't have access to the free breakfast and lunch programs they provide.

The good news is that Disaster SNAP, an essential food assistance program that’s supposed to help in a time of need, was just approved by the federal government on Friday. Unfortunately, it could be a couple of weeks before those in South Florida can sign up.

Vedette Blain said she and her family prepared for the storm, which closed schools even before the storm hit.

Vedette Blain says she's looking for food assistance after most of her groceries were either eaten or spoiled without refrigeration.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“When they said that they said no school, I [bought] stuff for $300 for my kids,” said Blain. “I don’t know how much money I lost. I don’t know.”

Her family didn’t have power for eight days, and during that time food spoiled in the fridge and their non-perishables dwindled.

“I don’t have no money. I’ve got seven children. That’s why I’m coming here to get food stamps,” she says in front of the two-story FANM building on the edge of Little Haiti.

Food stamps are also known as SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. That program gives people cards to use like  debit cards, to buy pre-approved items at the grocery store.

People who receive those benefits, like so many South Floridians, went out and bought a bunch of supplies before the storm. When power didn’t come back on quickly, some of that went bad.

To help replace some of that food, current SNAP recipients were approved to get 40 percent of their monthly benefits automatically reloaded onto their cards. Application periods have been extended and those whose benefits were set to expire will continue to get them for at least another month. Also, families can continue to purchase hot foods with their SNAP benefits through Sept 30.

Eligibility for SNAP benefits in Florida.
Credit DCF

But many who aren't on that program, like Blain, are still struggling.

“I’ll wait for them to tell me something. I wait for them. I don’t have nothing now,” said Blain.

She’ll have to wait, because another program, Disaster SNAP or D-SNAP, is not yet up and running in Miami-Dade County.

“We work with the state to determine whether they are ready for the D-SNAP program and that's what's been happening here lately,” said Robin Bailey Jr., southeast regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services, which runs SNAP and D-SNAP. It has approved the D-SNAP program for 48 counties in Florida, but will slowly open registration on a county-by-county basis over the next couple of weeks.

Disaster SNAP does two things:

First, it helps people who are already on SNAP get more assistance. Many households get a percentage of the monthly SNAP limit because of their income or other factors. For a period of time, these families will get bumped up to the full SNAP amount.

Second, D-SNAP opens the door for people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for the program because they make too much money.

Daniela Garcia stocks up on water at Presidente Supermarket on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, on Monday, September 4, 2017.
Credit C.M. GUERRERO / Miami Herald

Bailey says while he recognizes that people have been calling for the USDA to implement D-SNAP quickly, they have to make sure there’s the infrastructure to support the distribution of this kind of benefit.

“We have to make sure that we have retailers in that area, there's power in the area etc., to be able to redeem the benefit. To give someone a benefit they can't use it's probably going to be more problematic than helpful,” explained Bailey.

So while the name of the Disaster SNAP program may paint a picture of something that rushes in after a disaster like a hurricane, it takes a while to get it going.

“Disaster SNAP is the latter part [of relief efforts]. It's not first,” said Bailey.

In 2016 it took 10 days for Louisiana and the federal government to negotiate and bring D-SNAP online, but in 2012 it took almost three weeks for the program to start taking applications after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast.

In comparison, Harris County, where Houston is, just started enrolling people for D-SNAP on Sept. 22, four weeks after Hurricane Harvey laid waste to the eastern coast of Texas.

In the meantime, Bailey recommends getting food from a food bank.

“Those delays [in getting D-SNAP] absolutely affect our families,” said Paco Vélez, president and CEO of Feeding South Florida, which helps stock local food pantries. “This is why we’re trying hard and have a 24-hour operation right now."

Feeding South Florida is facing a few challenges getting information out to people who need it the most and battling the stigma that comes with getting help from a food bank.

Those challenges get harder when you’re talking about people who might not usually struggle to put food on the table but are finding themselves in need now, after the storm.

"For our families, especially the ones that are already struggling to put food on the table, they’re a roof repair away from hunger, or from even being homeless,” said Vélez. “Throw Hurricane Irma into the mix and our low-income families have now just become even more dependent on support.”