Those seeking disaster food aid face long lines

St. Johns County also opens food aid center at St. Augustine Fairgrounds

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Judging by the turnout at events making disaster food aid available this week, thousands of people living in Duval, Nassau, St. Johns and Flagler counties are still clearly hurting from Hurricane Irma.

For the second day in a row, the line at the Food for Florida Disaster Benefits Center at Regency Square Mall in Jacksonville formed well before it opened at 7 a.m. Thursday. The six-day event was set aside for residents with a last name starting with the letters E through H.

The Regency location, which is for residents of Duval and Nassau counties, will be open for six days, and each day is prioritized by the first letter of the applicant's last name. Wednesday was for people with last names beginning with letters A through H.

The lines moved much faster Thursday. As of 9 a.m., the lines started shrinking. A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Families said she believes the reason is that people are listening to the advice, and they're coming on the days assigned to them by their last name. 

News4Jax spoke to people who said they were waiting in a long line Thursday morning, but once they got to the front, they said it didn't take long at all to meet with a DCF worker, get their application finished and walk out with the benefits they need to get back on their feet following Irma. 

"I work. I have always worked -- for 30-something years," Shelia Wilson said. “So it's hard when you have to reach out for help. But we thank God this is here for us."

Wilson was one of the first arrive at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, but ran into a setback once she got to the front of the line. 

"(I) got to the front of the line to make sure I was registered. And when I went to look for my
ID, I didn't have it. So I had to go get my license and come back," Wilson said. 

By 10 a.m. Wednesday, officials with the Florida Department of Children and Families announced that the event had reached capacity for the day and no one else should come out Wednesday.

"I tried to get around here at 7 this morning. There were about 1,000 people here, so we figured we'd come around 2," Reggie Bryant said. "I'll be back here first thing in the morning."

DCF announced that people whose last names begin with the letters A through D that were turned away Wednesday due to safety concerns could come out either Thursday or on the planned makeup day next Tuesday. A Full list of dates, times and who should come on which day is listed below.

Residents living in St. Johns and Flagler counties lined up at the St. Augustine Fairgrounds Wednesday, where people were also asked to attend on a specific day based on their last name.

While there were lines at the fairgrounds, St. Johns County officials said Wednesday morning that they did not have concerns about crowd size.

See addresses and times for both events below.

People were strongly encouraged to pre-register online at least one day in advance to allow for faster processing of applications on-site.

"It's going to help tremendously because my lights were out about four or five days. I lost all my food and I'm trying to regroup again," Modis Tookes said. "(I'm) very appreciative of what's going on. it's been real tough, but we're going to get through this."

DCF is hosting Food for Florida Disaster Food Assistance Program sites in counties across the state that were declared disaster areas during Hurricane Irma. To qualify, people must have lived or worked in a county included in the federal disaster areas on Sept. 5, suffered a disaster-related loss and not be enrolled in the regular food-stamp program.

One electronic benefits card (EBT) per eligible household will be issued, and there are income limits to qualify. According to DCF, a one-person household could receive up to $200 per month, and a family of four could receive up to $650 per month. State officials said the applicant needs to visit the local Food for Florida site in person. Additional individuals attending may contribute to longer lines and extended service times.

  "I can't put it into words," John Erving said of the relief the food aid was giving him. "We had to throw away everything.  We still had no lights, and what food we had, we had to get rid of."          

Hannah Dickinson, who was in line by 7:10 a.m. Wednesday, left seven hours later with two months of food assistance.

"I feel better now that it's done and I don't have to come here later on this week," Dickinson said.

'Unprecedented turnout'

Food for Florida has elicited an unprecedented and extraordinary response from families recovering from Hurricane Irma, DCF announced Thursday.

DCF has mobilized more than 5,900 staff, including 1,450 temporary staff hired specifically to aid in Food for Florida response, to 32 sites across Florida.

To date, emergency federal food assistance benefits have been provided to more than 300,000 families statewide. Food for Florida is the largest Disaster SNAP food assistance program activation in United States history.

“The Florida Department of Children and Families is doing everything possible to ensure every family receives the resources and help they need as quickly as possible. At Food for Florida sites across the state, DCF has experienced an unprecedented response from families and we’ve deployed more than 5,900 staff, including 1,450 temporary staff hired specifically to aid in Food for Florida response, to ensure we’re able to quickly process D-SNAP applications,” said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. “We understand that many locations are experiencing lines and we appreciate the patience and understanding of the more than 300,000 families we’ve served in this process. We will continue to work around the clock processing applications to minimize wait-times and help get Florida families back on their feet. To help make sure you are able to move through the application process as quickly as possible, DCF asks that Floridians continue to pre-register online and follow the site guidance below.”

For most applicants who pre-registered and applied electronically, DCF has deposited D-SNAP funds into their accounts by the next business day.

To qualify for the Food for Florida benefits program, applicants must have lived or worked in one of the 48 federally-declared disaster counties on September 5, and not receive food assistance through the regular SNAP Program. Additionally, eligible individuals and families must have suffered a disaster-related loss, such as damage to their homes or self-employment property, loss of food, reduction or loss of income, or have incurred other disaster related expenses.

In addition to those families served at Food for Florida sites, more than 2.4 million individuals already receiving food assistance automatically received benefits to bring them to the maximum benefit amount. These families do not need to apply or show up at a Food for Florida site to receive these benefits.

Additionally, DCF applied for federal food assistance program waivers and provided:

  • Early release of food assistance benefits prior to Hurricane Irma making landfall to help families prepare for Hurricane Irma
  • Hot Foods Waiver, and a subsequent extension, to allow families to purchase prepared food with their EBT card at participating retailers
  • Extended the time frame to report food loss from 10 to 20 days
  • Mass food assistance replacement benefits for September SNAP recipients in 52 counties effected by Hurricane Irma
  • Extended October SNAP re-certification deadlines for three months
  • To pre-register, an applicant needs a valid Florida Driver License or Florida Identification Card. Individuals, families, and authorized representatives who pre-register must still visit a Food for Florida disaster site, listed on the Food for Florida website, to be interviewed. Only the head of household needs to visit the site. Individuals may also apply at the Food for Florida Disaster Program site.

Food for Florida event locations, times

Because of the volume of people applying, service at each site is organized by the first letter of recipient's last name.

Duval, Nassau counties - Regency Square Mall, 9501 Arlington Expressway Suite 260, Jacksonville

The site will be open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Tuesday, Oct. 17.

Thursday – E - H
Friday – I - L
Saturday – M – P
Sunday – Q - T 
Monday – U - Z
Tuesday – Make-up day

St. Johns, Flagler counties - St. Augustine Fairgrounds, 5840 State Road 207, Elkton

The site will be open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 15.

Thursday – G - J
Friday – K - O
Saturday – P - Z
Sunday – Make-up day

Baker, Columbia counties - Parkview Baptist Church, 268 N.W. Lake Jeffery Road, Lake City

The site will be open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, through Tuesday, Oct. 24.

10/20 – A - F
10/21 – G - J
10/22 – K - O
10/23 – P - Z
10/24 – Make-up day

While people are encouraged to go the center designated for their county due to the volume of applicants, anyone who lives in a disaster area can receive assistance at any site, but may be asked to wait until local residents' applications are completed.

Alachua, Bradford and Union counties events were held late last month.


About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.

Veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor