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Sunday, February 05, 2023

Food insecurity in Alachua County has risen amidst COVID-19

Graphic of food coupons and mother and child
Graphic of food coupons and mother and child

Nadine Johnson went to Walmart with her four kids to buy groceries and walked out with nothing but tears.

It was the last week of July, and the 34-year-old Gainesville resident only had 19 cents to spend until her food stamp aid arrived.

Johnson and her family aren’t alone. In 2019, 35.2 million people lived in food insecure households. Since COVID-19 hit the U.S., that number has risen to more than 50 million food insecure individuals. Alachua County is home to about 50,000 of those people, with about 19% of the county projected to experience food insecurity in 2020 according to feeding america, and food banks distributing millions more pounds of food compared to 2019.

The number of Floridians using food stamps increased by 1.2 million people from March to July. As of July, more than 3.8 million people in Florida use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to eat. The program, known as SNAP, provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of families in need.

Several thousand of these people live in Alachua County.

“My kids don’t understand why mommy's like, ‘No, you can't go back and get another apple or orange or another, whatever, we're just going to eat this much,’ Johnson said. “They’re feeling like I'm punishing them.”

After Florida’s unemployment rate nearly tripled from 4.4% to 12.9% in March, some requirements for food stamps were waived. Recipients no longer had to prove they were searching for a job and provide information about their household size and income in order to receive food stamps.

Even with these waivers in place, Johnson said she still didn’t receive the right amount of food stamps. In July, she only got food stamps for one of her four children.

“I ended up having to move because of all of this and I am going to be moving into our new place with no food,” Johnson said. “I’ve been one of those people who fell through the cracks and didn’t get the help.”

On Sept. 2, these waivers expired, leaving many to question how they would continue to receive food stamps while out of work and with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming. These waivers were reinstated Sept. 4, but recertifications to determine food stamp eligibility also resumed, said Cindy Huddleston, senior policy analyst at Florida Policy Institute, a research nonprofit in Orlando.

Huddleston said recertifications occur every four to 12 months and require recipients to report any changes to things like income, number of dependents and expenses.

Huddleston wrote in an email that families are required to recertify to continue to receive benefits. Many eligible families get kicked off for procedural reasons, even though they remain eligible.

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Families can fail to recertify when either the family or the state does not take a required action during the recertification window. The reasoning can be as simple as not providing required information or missing an interview, Huddleston said. Many families do not fully understand the procedures for recertification, or have trouble complying, she said. As a result, they lose help and have to reapply for aid all over again, despite remaining eligible.

It is unclear how the Florida Department of Children and Family services plans to roll recertifications back in, Huddleston said. As of Friday, all the department has said is

“all who will be required to recertify will receive a notification and a timeline to comply.”

The department did not respond to The Alligator after numerous attempts to be reached.

Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, reemployment assistance and Medicaid have seen a drastic increase in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, and people are still applying, Huddleston said.

Similarly, food banks are serving more people in need of meals.

More than 8.4 million pounds of food were distributed in 2019 to the five counties the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank serves, said Karen Woolfstead, communication development director for the food bank. Of the 8.4 million, 5.7 million pounds were distributed in Alachua County, and the rest were in Levy, Dixie, Gilchrist and Lafayette counties.

So far in 2020, 14 million pounds of food have been distributed to these five counties, Woolfstead said.

“It’s like it’s on steroids,” Woolfstead said. “It's so many people that are trying right now, and if one person in your household loses a job, you still have to pay all your bills. This is not just the homeless, it’s the working poor.”

Woolfstead expects to distribute even more food as COVID-19 cases rise in Alachua County and residents continue to experience economic hardship.

People are still struggling nationally and in Alachua County, said Latashia Brimm, a 47-year-old advocate for Community Spring, a grassroots non-profit organization in Gainesville. Brimm started a blog about how COVID-19 has exasperated food insecurity in Alachua County.  These pre-existing food deficits are impacted by evictions and the rising unemployment rate, she said. Florida’s unemployment rate dipped downward in June to 10.4% before rising again in July, eventually surpassing the national unemployment rate.

“These are basic necessities that people need,” Brimm said. “There are many people who were food insecure before COVID and are currently food insecure during COVID.”

Despite this, Nadine Johnson and others are struggling. Johnson said she is grateful to have friends who watch out for her and her family, but not everyone is as fortunate.

Johnson said government officials sometimes forget there are people at the other end of their policies. She said she hopes to receive the aid she needs to continue to feed her children.

“We are people who are hungry, we're people who are struggling with our children and trying not to poison them with the stress that we deal with,” Johnson said. “But still, we need to feed them, we need to care for them, we need to nurture them and we need to be assured of our government. Do they care what we're going through?”

Correction: This article was updated to reflect the proper business name for "Community Spring." The Alligator originally reported differently.

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Anna Wilder

Anna Wilder is a second-year journalism major and the criminal justice reporter. She's from Melbourne, Florida, and she enjoys being outdoors or playing the viola when she's not writing. 

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