Ron DeSantis puts on his mask during a press conference at the Amway Center in Orlando, Friday, February 26, 2021.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis puts on his mask during a press conference at the Amway Center in Orlando, Friday, February 26, 2021. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Ron DeSantis loves food. Who doesn’t? As Florida’s governor travels constantly around the state, he pays feel-good visits to Mom-and-Pop restaurants to salute their contributions to the economy and sample their mouth-watering treats.

On Thursday, it was Dominic’s Deli & Eatery in Palm Coast, according to the governor’s Twitter feed. The day before, he tried the scratch-built bagels at Bagelheads in Pensacola. “Delicious,” he tweeted. He earlier took his four-year-old daughter Madison to Buc-ee’s, where she tried its cotton candy-flavored Dippin’ Dots ice cream.

But the governor has coldly turned his back on an estimated 2.1 million children across Florida who live in fear of not always knowing where their next meal will come from. This colossal blunder underscores how DeSantis fails to adequately protect Floridians during the pandemic.

Florida is by far the largest state that has refused to apply for $820 million in pandemic food benefits. The money would have lifted up many of Florida’s poorer families, a disproportionate share of which live in South Florida, where the cost of living is beyond the reach of many.

A spike over the summer

The federal government offered the money in April to help struggling families catch up from a spike in food costs over the summer because schools or child care facilities were closed and could not offer kids free or reduced-price meals. For many low-income children in Florida, the food they get in school is the best nutrition they receive. DeSantis resolutely ignored the program.

That $820 million is a huge number, but it doesn’t go very far in a state as big as Florida. It works out to a one-time benefit of $375 per child or $6.82 a day for two months under a program known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Childhood hunger is a very serious problem in America. The advocacy group No Kid Hungry says nearly one of every four kids in Florida lives in a food insecure home, meaning not enough food for every family member to live a food-healthy life.

Alabama accepted the money. So did Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and nearly 40 other states, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Texas enthusiastically took the money, and Gov. Greg Abbott thanked state and federal agencies “for working together to ensure Texas families can continue to put food on the table. This third round of pandemic food benefits will help us continue to provide access to nutritious food for both families and their children.”

But not Florida.

Too many hungry kids

A spokeswoman for DeSantis, Christina Pushaw, suggested the state didn’t need the money because schools are open and provide free and reduced-price lunches. “Schools are not remote in Florida, and children receive nutrition directly from schools,” Pushaw told the Tampa Bay Times.

That’s not the point. The government provides the money to help families retroactively recoup some of their food costs over the summer.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who represents poor, rural communities across North Florida, initiated a letter to DeSantis signed by all 10 Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation. “We have children going to school hungry, and struggling with hunger after school, on the weekends and during the summer,” Lawson told the governor. “Not applying for these federal funds will continue to exasperate food insecurities for many of our families.”

In a letter spearheaded by the Florida Policy Institute, dozens of community groups, businesses and churches also urged DeSantis to take the money. “The well-being of children is of the utmost importance as we all continue to navigate policy solutions amid the pandemic,” said the institute, calling the money “an integral part of reducing food insecurity.”

Among the groups signing the letter were the Florida PTA, League of Women Voters, Feeding South Florida, city of West Palm Beach and the United Way in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

A lack of compassion

Rejecting this money heightens the tremendous economic anxiety afflicting Florida many families. It’s another example of DeSantis’ disastrous leadership during the pandemic.

While inexcusable, it’s hardly surprising, considering DeSantis’ longstanding lack of compassion for Floridians. He showed no interest in expanding Medicaid to improve the health care safety net. He opposed increasing the exceedingly stingy jobless benefit of $275 for a maximum of 12 weeks. He cut off a federal unemployment benefit of $300 a week.

When you’re poor and hungry and struggling to make ends meet, every dollar makes a difference. The additional money would have paid for food at groceries and at the food businesses that DeSantis professes to support so enthusiastically.

As Rep. Lawson noted in his letter, there’s no deadline to apply for the money because it’s applied retroactively. DeSantis still has time to right this wrong. Hungry kids are waiting. All he has to do is ask.

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The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at letters@sun-sentinel.com.

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