The Florida Department of Children and Families has paid out more than $873 million for disaster food assistance in 34 counties impacted by Hurricane Irma, including $30 million in Palm Beach County.
The department released data about the D-SNAP food stamp program and improvements to the application process late Wednesday afternoon after news reports about people waiting as long as 8 hours outdoors without water or bathrooms for their applications to be reviewed.
“Some arrived as early as 2 a.m. just to get in line,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which pays for the program. “This is unacceptable.”
Congresswoman Lois Frankel issued a statement on Wednesday saying she was “deeply concerned about poor execution of food-relief programs…”
As part of the improvements, three application sites in Palm Beach County will now be open until 7 p.m. through Saturday. DCF has also deployed 110 staff members from Miami to help process applications in Palm Beach County. The department has also asked for additional days to serve Miami-Dade County, where local and state officials abruptly closed sites this past weekend because of “health and safety concerns,” according to the Miami Herald.
More information about eligibility, online applications and site locations can be found at www.myflfamilies.com/fff
The program, Food for Florida, is part of the Department of Children and Families’ Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called D-SNAP. The program provides food assistance in 48 Florida counties.
To qualify for the program, applicants must have lived or worked in one of the 48 counties and have experienced at least one impact: Damage or destruction of their home or business; loss of income and disaster related expenses, such as food loss, home and business repairs, evacuation and temporary shelter expenses. People receiving food stamp benefits are not eligible.
To date, DCF has processed more than 625,000 D-SNAP applications, including 15,383 applications in Palm Beach County.
DCF submitted its first request for disaster food assistance to the federal government on Sept. 13 — three days after Hurricane Irma first impacted Florida. More than 6,000 staff, including 1,500 temporary workers, are processing applications.
DCF has also hired traffic-control companies and are shuttling staff from remote locations to provide more parking. The elderly and disabled will be moved to the front of lines.
Bottled water will be distributed at all locations. However, the DCF press release made no mention of bathroom facilities.
The criticism of DCF is not the first time the department has been criticized for its handling of disaster food assistance. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, widespread fraud plagued the program. Since benefits are based on income and how many people live in a household, some applicants lied about their income and living arrangements.
Although the state caught $428,945 worth of fraud before payments went out in November 2005, a Palm Beach Post investigation found there were few safeguards to prevent fraud.
The current online application requires information about income, savings and assets. However, some who went through the process on Tuesday said no additional documents were required besides a photo ID and birth certificates for children living in the household.
According to a section of the press release highlighted in yellow: “DCF takes the responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer money very seriously and investigates all instances of potential fraud.”
Fraud investigators are stationed at all application sites and are monitoring social media for unlawful sales of EBT, also known as food stamps. Already fraud investigators have reviewed 21,190 applications, which has prevented $5.2 million in fraudulent benefits being paid, according to the DCF press release.
In Palm Beach County, lines began forming at 2 a.m. Tuesday at an application site at John Prince Park. By sunrise, traffic was backed up more than a mile to Interstate 95 on Sixth Ave. South, and more than 2 miles on Congress Avenue and then east on Lantana Road. Side streets and parking lots within a quarter mile of Lake Ida Park in Delray Beach were also lined with cars. Crowds were so large that the park was temporarily closed.