September 13, 2019

Governor’s Veto of Subsidized Transportation for Residents of Food Deserts: A Starting Point for Discussion

Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed $100,000 earmarked to subsidize rides to grocery stores for 1,000 people living in food deserts in the Sunshine State. It’s not clear whether this veto makes sense for Florida. Important questions about how the pilot program would have been implemented are not answered in the proposal.  

However, one thing is clear: Florida needs to develop strategies for solving the problem of food deserts.

Food deserts are parts of Florida without access to affordable and nutritious food, and there are hundreds of them in the Sunshine State. More often than not, they are located in low-income neighborhoods. According to a study commissioned by the State of Florida, persons living in food deserts are more likely to die prematurely from certain cancers, diabetes, stroke and liver disease than persons who have ready access to healthy food.

Some things we don’t know about the vetoed pilot program are whether a sliding scale would have been used to determine the user’s copay for a ride. This is important, because if a family’s breadwinner just lost their job, the family may have no money to pay for a ride, regardless of how little they may be asked to contribute. We also don’t know how many rides the family would get for the $100-per-person budgeted in the proposal. Or whether the pilot program would have subsidized rides to farmers markets or allowed more than one family member per trip if the rider needed help carrying groceries.

While answers to these and other questions about this particular pilot project are needed to gauge its value, food deserts in Florida are a very real problem and warrant a holistic approach that looks at all factors creating food deserts, not just transportation.

For example, one obstacle exacerbating the challenge in solving the problem of food deserts is the budgetary constraints of families who, although they want very much to spend their money on nutritious foods, can’t afford a heathy diet.  Even families who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to put food on the table have enormous challenges in planning healthy meals that they can afford.  Right now, the average SNAP benefit per person per meal is only $1.37 in Florida. Although SNAP participants are budget wizards at stretching their benefits, $1.37 only goes so far, no matter who you are or what meal it is.  

And families who find themselves in crisis after losing a job or getting sick or divorced can hardly count on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help them supplement their food budget. TANF payments in Florida are so low that most families can barely pay their rent or utility bills, much less spend any of that assistance on food. Most people in Florida spend far more on one car payment, even for a used car, than what a family on TANF receives for their entire living expenses for the whole month.

To solve food deserts, the Sunshine State needs to look at all the barriers that affect the ability of low-income families to access affordable and nutritious food.  Florida should consider public-private partnerships to encourage more grocery stores and farmers markets in underserved areas, as well as mobile markets and corner stores that sell fruits and vegetables at a reasonable price. Benefit levels in SNAP and TANF should be raised to a level that allows families who are struggling to buy more nutritious food than they currently can afford. Transportation should be accessible.

The bottom line is that — good or bad — the governor’s veto should not be a dead end to solving food deserts. Instead, the veto should be an opportunity for Florida to begin discussion of all the collaborative strategies that the state can road-test to address our food desert problem.

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