Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, already under intense scrutiny for his COVID-19 policies, is facing a fresh barrage of criticism over an "incomprehensible" decision to reject federal pandemic food aid that would benefit 2.1 million low-income children in the Sunshine State.
Democrats say Florida is the only state in the nation that has rejected the aid, which began under former president Donald Trump as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, to help children who had received free or discounted lunches at school to obtain meals while studying remotely, according to a report from Florida Politics.
"Through his inaction, (Democrats) said, DeSantis is blocking Florida's neediest families from getting about $820 million in child food aid, which they could spend at local grocery stores and markets at a time when many families are suffering," the site reported Friday. "The result has been a $375 shortfall per eligible child over the summer, with kids losing $2.26 for breakfast, $3.60 for lunch, and $1 for a snack daily."
DeSantis, who once lauded the program, has yet to explain his decision to reject the aid this year, although last month his office suggested "that kids don't need the program because they're back in school," Florida Politics reported.
"The attention DeSantis has attracted for refusing to rejoin the P-EBT (food aid) program comes while he's embroiled in a legal battle over an executive order he signed June 30 barring schools from requiring students to wear masks on campus," the site reported.
In an editorial this week calling for DeSantis to more fully explain his decision to reject the federal food aid, the Tampa Bay Times noted that the governor is "doing everything he can to paint a picture that Florida is largely post-pandemic," which the newspaper called "ridiculous ... with the delta variant surging, and with infections, hospitalizations and deaths rising in Florida."
"Millions of Floridians are still playing catch-up from COVID's devastating financial hit," the editorial board wrote. "Is DeSantis blind to this reality or does denying it merely change the news cycle and play to his Republican base? ... Is there any justification here or is DeSantis merely politicking on the backs of hungry Floridians?"
Congresswoman Val Demings, who's challenging GOP Sen. Marco Rubio in 2022, ripped into DeSantis on Thursday for rejecting the federal food aid, calling his decision "unacceptable."
"Playing politics with hungry children is simply cruel," Demings wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Florida House Democrats issued a statement in which state Rep. Marie Woodson called DeSantis' move "truly appalling" and "incomprehensible."
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who's running for governor in 2022, noted in an Aug. 25 letter to DeSantis that it's not too late to apply for the food aid retroactively.
"There is simply no reason why you should have ended — or be so far behind in securing — this critical federal assistance for our children that is being provided at no cost to the state," Fried wrote. "The people of Florida cannot afford for you to leave money on the table, especially when it means leaving food off their tables."