Street. CLOUD, Florida – These days, all 12-year-old Jack Kokik wants is some lettuce.
“I really want fresh foods — healthy foods, like apples, lettuce and all of that,” he said.
But this kind of healthy, fresh food is often too expensive for single mom Amy Kokik to afford the small, steady amount of monthly income she receives for disability benefits.
What you need to know
- Over the past year, food prices have risen more than 11% in the US
- Experts say it’s often the hardest to get fresh food when prices are high
- Officials at local stores say they are working to meet the growing need
Over the past year, food prices have risen more than 11% in the US – the largest 12-month increase since 1979, According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To feed her two children, Kukec picks up everything she can every month from the local food pantry, which she runs Osceola Council on Aging. But they’re usually mostly non-perishable: things like canned tomatoes, canned grains, and ramen noodles, rather than fresh produce or meat.
Experts say these fresh staples are the hardest for families — and pantries — to get, and “There’s never enough,” says Belinda Oliveira of the Osceola Council on Aging.
“Healthy stuff, as we all know, is more expensive,” she said. “And right now with soaring food prices, many families have to give up more nutritious, high-protein meats, fruits and vegetables.”
Oliveira said that although families will order fresh food items in store, there is usually nothing available for distribution. Wherever they are, she said, it’s usually due to outside donations.
The last time I went to the St. By the end of the day, it was already over.
In Osceola County, where the Kukec family lives, more than 22% of children are food insecure – meaning they lack constant access to enough food to lead healthy, active lives, According to Feeding America Network.
hamster on a wheel
For Kukec and many others in similar situations, living in poverty seems like an impossible cycle. Whatever small amount of money she can pay for food, it translates to another late car insurance, credit card, or medical bill payment.
“You’re a hamster in a hurry, and you’re trying to catch up to make sure your kids have something (to eat), that they also have lights, and they also have a place to live,” Kokec said.
Kokic, who is originally from Illinois, said her family came to Florida in 2019, escaping extreme domestic violence that Kokic says has left her permanently disabled. All three family members received ongoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although Kukec was approved for food aid in Illinois, she said her application for the same federal benefit in Florida has been repeatedly denied — although on paper, she appears to meet the eligibility criteria.
In Florida, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) is the agency responsible for managing SNAP (Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program)formerly known as the Food Voucher Program.
To be eligible for SNAP, an individual’s income must fall within the limits set by it United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To arrive at this final calculation, program managers deduct specific expenses from individuals’ income, including the “shelter deduction” to calculate housing costs.
In general, there is a maximum dollar amount that can be deducted for shelter costs, and as of October 1, the maximum is $624. But for families with an elderly or disabled family member – such as Kukec – this amount is “unspecified”, According to DCF guidelines.
For Kukec, “unspecified” indicates that the shelter deduction must equal the full amount of rent you pay each month. But the program’s managers take a much smaller amount from her income, according to paperwork and email correspondence Kukec shares with Spectrum News. Kukec’s income is too high to qualify for SNAP.
“I just want people to know this is happening,” she said. “It is not fair for children or people with disabilities to be deprived of food.”
Several separate parties have told Spectrum News that qualifying for SNAP benefits in Florida is often a confusing process. An independent worker said applicants’ expenses for things like shelter and medical bills are not always taken into account in the calculations. By doing so, some families who actually need food assistance, and appear to qualify for it, are being left out.
“It happens to a lot of families,” the case worker told Spectrum News.
Without SNAP, Kukec says, her family—her children, who are now old enough to realize their own poverty—have struggled with additional anxiety.
“All the years I spent not having a food card completely destroyed me financially,” Kokec said.
For Kukec, the pantry in St. Cloud a lifeline: not just for sustenance, but for her mental health.
“I go here for hope,” she said. “They are amazing people. I cry every time I go because I appreciate them so much.”
The Osceola Council on Aging operates two food pantries, one in Saint Cloud and one in Kissimmee. Each location opens once a week, serving approximately 150 families at a time.
But actual food demand in the area is much higher, and has been rising since the summer, according to the nonprofit.
“Our demand now is so great that if we had the capacity, our demand would be enough to make a pantry five days a week, at both locations,” Oliveira said.
One recent week morning in the pantry, Kokik got her usual 30-day stockpile of “shelf-safe” food, plus a rare find: some fresh bread and tomatoes.
“I love you guys,” Kokik told the volunteer examining her.
The volunteer replied, “Oh, I love you too.”
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