June 3, 2019

Hurricane Season and D-SNAP: Phone Interviews Help Vulnerable Floridians Access Food Assistance After a Disaster

Hurricane season started June 1 this year. But many Floridians still don’t know that there is a special program to help them put food on the table after a disaster. It’s called the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), and it’s not just for SNAP recipients. In fact, D-SNAP isn’t for SNAP recipients at all. The program is designed to assist disaster survivors who need help with food but aren’t getting SNAP. On the federal level, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls the shots, but the Department of Children and Families (DCF) administers the program on the state level here in Florida.

Even folks who don’t normally have problems making ends meet often find themselves with empty pocketbooks after a hurricane.  And D-SNAP has been a lifesaver, helping those Floridians afford groceries after they suffer loss in a hurricane– like a damaged roof, having to close their family-owned business, a power outage that wipes out a freezer full of food, or the transportation or shelter expense of having to evacuate to another county or state.

There are income thresholds for D-SNAP. Ordinarily, to be eligible in Florida, a family’s take-home income and accessible cash resources, minus disaster expenses, cannot exceed the D-SNAP income limit, which is updated annually by USDA. For a household of one, the D-SNAP income limit is $1,728/month; for two, the income limit is $2,088/month, and so on. Monthly D-SNAP benefits range from $192 for a household of one to $353 for a household of two, and more for larger families. If eligible, USDA routinely allows D-SNAP programs to provide two months’ worth of benefits.

In the past few years, the D-SNAP program has been crucial in ensuring that Floridians can feed their families after a disaster. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Take Hurricane Irma, for example. Hurricane Irma was an unprecedented disaster that impacted a huge swath of the entire state. Over 70 percent of counties in Florida were declared eligible for D-SNAP, the largest D-SNAP program ever implemented in the State of Florida. The impact of Hurricane Irma 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 all almost every county was designated as a federally declared disaster area.

Yet when Florida first rolled out its Hurricane Irma D-SNAP program, USDA said that all D-SNAP applicants in Florida, without exception, were required to travel to a designated brick-and mortar application site to be interviewed in person in order to complete a D-SNAP application. This was business as usual; USDA had always required in-person interviews as a condition for approving a state’s D-SNAP plan after a disaster.

Because of the sheer number of Floridians impacted by Hurricane Irma who needed help buying food, the requirement that everyone go in person to be interviewed overwhelmed the capacity of affected counties and DCF to keep up with the D-SNAP demand. Lines reached as long as 50,000 persons or more at application sites, creating chaos and forcing law enforcement to close D-SNAP sites early due to safety and health concerns. Frail applicants who braved the weather to apply passed out, were turned away after waiting in sweltering heat, or gave up and went home after hours of standing in line. At least one applicant had to be hospitalized. The end result was that Floridians whose disability or age prevented them from traveling to an application site or standing in line to be interviewed were barred from eligibility.

It wasn’t until a federal lawsuit was filed by Floridians who were unable to travel in person to or stand in line at a D-SNAP site because of their disabilities that USDA, for the first time ever, permitted DCF to conduct phone interviews. As a result of that lawsuit,  more than 4,400 persons with disabilities, who could not go to DCF in person and would have otherwise gone without, qualified for Hurricane Irma D-SNAP through telephone interviews in Florida.

USDA’s sanctioning of phone interviews in the wake of Hurricane Irma has set the stage for Florida, and other states nation-wide, to design humane D-SNAP programs that are responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable of our friends and neighbors. After Hurricane Michael, USDA followed Hurricane Irma’s suit and 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. And, because families were not required to travel in person to a D-SNAP site, Florida avoided the problems associated with the Darwinian roll-out of D-SNAP after Hurricane Irma.

The question remains as to why it took a federal lawsuit to force USDA to allow phone interviews after a disaster of Hurricane Irma’s magnitude and scope– especially when neither DCF nor counties were equipped with the facilities and on-site staff to handle the unprecedented number of Floridians in need of help. On top of that, mandatory in-person interviews meant, inescapably, that the most vulnerable of Floridians would be cropped out of the D-SNAP program entirely as a matter of course.

There’s no guarantee that USDA will continue to let Florida use phone interviews for D-SNAP. If not, another Hurricane Irma would, once again, leave the most vulnerable of Floridians with an empty dinner plate. And, although we hope for a hurricane-free summer, no one wants a repeat of what happened after Hurricane Irma if Florida gets hit again. All Floridians in need, regardless of age or health, deserve a fair chance to apply for food assistance after a disaster.  It’s a no-brainer that the old way of doing D-SNAP business won’t work in the Sunshine State.

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