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Florida Policy CEO says food insecurity remains an issue

Photo: Danielle Prieur
Photo: Danielle Prieur

Kids are on summer break which means families are spending more to keep the pantry stocked.

WMFE's Talia Blake caught up with Florida Policy Institute’s CEO Sadaf Knight to talk about the latest on food insecurity in Central Florida. She said more than 10-percent of residents across the state are struggling with access to healthy foods.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Listen to the full conversation in the player above.

Sadaf Knight is the CEO of the Florida Policy Institute.
Florida Policy Institute
Florida Policy Institute
Sadaf Knight is the CEO of the Florida Policy Institute.

Talia Blake: What is the state of food insecurity now in Central Florida?

Sadaf Knight: Food insecurity is defined by USDA as when people don't have enough food, and they don't have access to enough food to be healthy and to live a healthy active lifestyle. In Florida, the food rate of food insecurity is 10.6%. So, that means 10.6% of people in Florida, according to Feeding America, don't have access to enough food. This is usually driven by things like poverty, unemployment, or even things like economic instability, like just having one unexpected expense come up or an emergency, and that can really destabilize households and lead to food insecurity.

Talia Blake: You said it's around 10% right now, is that an increase or decrease from last year?

Sadaf Knight: I don't know exactly by the numbers. But, I do know that there are other surveys that have shown that it's actually getting more difficult for families to afford groceries. And that has gone up in the past year.

Talia Blake: The deal to raise the federal debt limit has made changes to SNAP benefits, how will that impact food insecure residence in Central Florida?

Sadaf Knight: Anytime there's work requirements that are increased for receiving benefits, that really just adds more red tape for people to get SNAP benefits. It doesn't actually help to improve their ability to find or keep work. It creates additional barriers and limits access to SNAP benefits which are very important for people when they're facing other economic challenges.

Talia Blake: Speaking of economic challenges, what factors are contributing to food insecurity in our region today?

Sadaf Knight: So what I mentioned earlier, things like unemployment, poverty and stability. A survey by No Kid Hungry as of January of this year showed that 66% of people surveyed said they were just one emergency away from experiencing hunger. So, that means they were worried that if they had one unexpected expense of $1,500, they were worried about their ability to buy groceries. The things that contribute to food insecurity are the general economic challenges that people face and the rising cost of living, increased unaffordability, just all around for different things like housing, and the cost of food and transportation, and all those different things. If you think about it, food insecurity is kind of a symptom of broader economic challenges and what's happening in the economy. So, you have an economy that's driven by, especially in Central Florida, low wage work, service sector jobs, and things like that, where people are already struggling, just not making enough to make ends meet. That's all going to contribute to food insecurity. And then as we see the wind down of these federal COVID provisions that had been passed, we also see that a lot of those supports that had been put into place over the past few years are now coming to an end. And those things had really helped keep people out of poverty (and) put some extra resources into household budgets that are now coming to an end, and that's going to have a significant impact. It already has had a significant impact.

Talia Blake: Can you elaborate a little bit more on that impact?

Sadaf Knight: During the pandemic, during the public health emergency, there were additional SNAP benefits that Congress had authorized that went a long way towards lessening hunger (and) alleviating poverty. SNAP participants got a boost to their benefits, essentially. During the pandemic between March 2020 and July 2021, Florida issued over $3 billion in these what are called emergency allotments. You have to think of it more broadly than just what people on SNAP are getting, because for every dollar of SNAP benefits that are provided, especially during a recession, it generates $1.54 in economic activity. So, the overall impact of that $3 billion was actually much more. It was around $4.6 billion in economic activity. What happened though, was to receive those additional benefits, there had to be both the federal public health emergency in place and the state public health emergency in place. Florida ended our state level public health emergency early in June 2021. So we actually pulled out of those additional allotments earlier than many other states. So when that ended, each SNAP participants saw a decrease of about $90 on average in their allotment. And because of this, over that time period that if we had stayed in it until it ended federally, Floridians lost out on about $5 billion in federal funds, that could have helped with food insecurity and access to healthy foods, and then a potential $7.7 billion in economic impact. So Florida really lost out quite a bit by pulling out of this early.

Talia Blake: Speaking of that, with that compounded with the new changes that are coming to SNAP, what does the future of food insecurity look like here in Florida? What do you anticipate for the rest of the year or even this time next year?

Sadaf Knight: I think food insecurity is going to continue to be a pretty significant challenge. I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to see that increase, especially because of other things going on, like the Medicaid redetermination process that's happening. People are also losing other things like health coverage, and oftentimes not because they're not eligible, but because of procedural reasons and the inefficiencies in this redetermination process. So all of it compounded, I think we're gonna continue to see this confluence of issues, whether it's housing unaffordability, food insecurity, lack of access to health care, these are all things that are interrelated, and they all kind of come down to how families have to make choices at the end of the day.

Talia Blake: Here in Central Florida, we're obviously not just one county, so how do the counties compare when it comes to food insecurity?

Sadaf Knight: In Central Florida, the counties kind of all hover around 10% or 11%. When it comes to the food insecurity rate, as I mentioned, the state rate is 10.6% and we have variation. Seminole County is the lowest at 8.4%. But then you look at Marion County, and Volusia County, they're 11.4% and 11.3%. So it's a pretty significant, I would say, chunk of the population that's struggling to put food on the table.

Talia Blake: And is that because of the average or median salaries or wages that are in those counties Seminole compared to Marion compared to Volusia why we're seeing those food insecurity levels differ?

Sadaf Knight: Yeah, I mean, it could be just a combination of the different economic and demographic makeup of those counties.

Talia Blake: Also when it comes to SNAP benefits, are we seeing that concentrated in one county versus another here in Central Florida?

Sadaf Knight: Overall, in Florida, there's 1.7 million households that receive food assistance. In all of the Central Florida counties combined, it's about 295,000. Within Central Florida, there's a significant portion of that, about 107,000, in Orange County. But it's one of the larger counties in this region, so I think that's just a factor of the number of people who are here.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.
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