On a recent morning, Gainesville Community Ministry handed out canned vegetables, instant mashed potatoes and chicken to a long line of people.
Many came with empty boxes and push carts, and as soon as those were filled, more people replaced the originals in the line. About 310 families were given food that day, the ministry estimated.
When the Florida Legislature voted in 2015 to reinstate a three-month time limit on federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, starting in early 2016, Gainesville Community Ministries wasn’t sure if there would be a sudden influx of people draining services like the ministry’s food drive.
Contrary to the initial concern, the pantry hasn’t seen a sudden climb directly because of the restrictions, but things are never easy, said Michael Wright, executive director of Gainesville Community Ministry.
“Unfortunately, I have to anticipate an increase every year,” he said. “The problem is not getting better; it’s getting worse. I am always geared up to take in as much food as possible, to move it as quickly as possible and to get people through the system.”
The new time limit for food assistance affects only what are classified as “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or ABAWDs.
ABAWDs are “adults age 18 through 49 who are not working or in a job-training program at least 20 hours a week, are not physically and mentally unable to work and are not responsible for a dependent child in the household,” according to Florida Legal Services.
Lawmakers said they approved the time restrictions on SNAP benefits because of Florida’s improving economy. In 2009, during the Great Recession, federal waivers allowed the legislature to disregard time limits on the program, said Jessica Sims, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, the agency in charge of SNAP.
The beginning of April marked the end of the first three-month restriction and, potentially, the first time many ABAWDs will be without food assistance.
But before recipients even hit the first time limit, many were sanctioned for not complying with new work requirements for ABAWDs. As of March 31, Florida Legal Services estimates 346,743 people have had their benefits withheld.
“Because [ABAWDs] are considered mandatory participants in the Food Stamp Employment and Training Program, if they don’t comply with what is considered a Food Stamp Employment and Training requirement, their food stamps will be immediately cut off as a sanction even if they have not missed their three-month time limit,” said Cindy Huddleston, a Florida Legal Services attorney.
DCF sanctions involve cutting off food benefits for “one month or until the recipient complies [with work requirements],” said Huddleston. The penalty for a second sanction is no benefits for three months or until the recipient complies. The third time, DCF can withhold assistance for six months or until requirements are met.
“ABAWDs must comply monthly (they do not have three months) with work requirements,” said DCF press secretary Michelle Glady. “If they are not compliant, any months of food assistance benefits received are counted as time-limited months.”
If SNAP recipients cannot meet work requirements, ABAWDs “can only get three months of time-limited food assistance during the 36-month period from January 1, 2016, through December 31, 2018,” said Glady in an email.
Issues arise, said Huddleston, because the DCF doesn’t have to notify a recipient that they are legally considered an ABAWD, leaving them no option to appeal and binding them to ABAWD work requirements.
So far Gainesville Community Ministry hasn’t experienced any major obstacles and they have maintained their regular food services.
“We always stay ready,” said Wright. “Kind of like the firemen at the fire station—we’re ready for anything that happens.”