Better Access to Disaster Food Assistance Must Be the Norm, not the Exception

The following was published in the Orlando Sentinel on June 20, 2019, in collaboration with Orlando-based Florida Policy Institute. Read the original story here.

The Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) is designed to help people who wouldn’t normally qualify for food assistance access to groceries in the wake of a crisis. In a natural disaster-prone state like Florida, the program has been a lifesaver. A wind-ravaged roof, a damaged car, a power outage that wipes out a freezer full of groceries — these are all enough to put many households into the red and among the millions in the Sunshine State already facing food insecurity.

As we find ourselves at the start of yet another hurricane season, it’s worth revisiting a major flaw in the initial rollout of Hurricane Irma D-SNAP: a requirement that people apply in-person for food assistance.

More than 70 percent of counties in Florida were declared eligible for D-SNAP in the wake of Irma. The impact of the storm was so large that 6.8 million Floridians were forced to evacuate their homes. Traffic on I-75 and I-95 was snarled by fleeing residents, and almost every county was designated as a federally declared disaster area.

Thanks to D-SNAP, in Orange County alone, more than 281,000 peoplewere able to get the food they needed.

But when Florida first rolled out D-SNAP, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated that all applicants — without exception — must travel to a designated brick-and-mortar site to be interviewed. This was not unusual, as USDA had always required in-person interviews as a condition for approving a state’s D-SNAP plan after a disaster.

However, because of the sheer number of Floridians impacted by Irma who needed help buying food, such a requirement overwhelmed both counties and the state Department of Children and Families (DCF). In Orange County, according to the Orlando Sentinel, DCF had to shut down the D-SNAP line just two hours after the designated site had opened. There were reports from various parts of the state of some of the more frail applicants who braved the weather passing out or being turned away after waiting in sweltering heat. Many gave up and had to go home after hours of standing in line. The result was thousands of instances in which people with disabilities and elderly residents were unable to get critical food assistance.

USDA says that requiring in-person interviews ensures the integrity of D-SNAP by preventing ineligible families from getting assistance. But in-person interviews aren’t required for regular SNAP food assistance in Florida, and DCF is known for operating a robust SNAP program that is exceedingly successful in achieving its goal of fraud detection and prevention.

It wasn’t until Floridians with disabilities who were unable to access Hurricane Irma D-SNAP filed a federal lawsuit that USDA, for the first time ever, permitted the state to conduct phone interviews. As a result of that lawsuit, more than 4,400 persons with disabilities qualified for disaster food assistance through telephone interviews in Florida.

What happened after Irma set an important precedent. After Hurricane Michael, USDA allowed DCF to conduct phone interviews from the get-go. By all accounts it was a success: as many as 130,000 families received D-SNAP. Additionally, because families were not required to travel in person to a D-SNAP site, Florida avoided some of the problems associated with the flawed roll-out following Hurricane Irma.

We encourage our congressional members to take action and urge USDA to continue phone interviews year-round to ensure all Floridians have equal access to apply for food assistance in their time of need.

Sadaf Knight is CEO of the Orlando-based Florida Policy Institute. Dave Krepcho is president & CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

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