Thousands apply for emergency food stamps

The Food for Florida program is being offered in 12 counties affected by Hurricane Wilma, including Collier, Lee

Kathy Mendes brought her umbrella to shield away the sun, grateful for the cool breeze while she waited in line with hundreds of others to apply for emergency food stamps Monday.

Naples resident Lynda Hucher, left, listens closely as Joelle Robles explains that Hucher is not eligible for the Disaster Food Stamps on Monday after Hucher waited in line to apply at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Collier Boulevard.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

Naples resident Lynda Hucher, left, listens closely as Joelle Robles explains that Hucher is not eligible for the Disaster Food Stamps on Monday after Hucher waited in line to apply at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Collier Boulevard.

The roof of her mobile home off Rock Road in eastern Collier County is leaking after a tree struck it during Hurricane Wilma and she lost at least one week’s income from her job as a pet groomer.

She had no qualms about the hour or so wait in the parking lot of the Super Wal-Mart on Collier Boulevard in East Naples to apply for the one-time assistance. The help is available to low-income residents from the state Department of Children and Families who are not regular recipients of food stamps.

With stubs from recent paychecks in hand and other identification, Mendes, 43, a single mother with one child, could qualify for $278 in emergency food stamp assistance. If she meets income eligibility, she will receive a debit card in the mail in a week to 10 days that can be used at supermarkets.

“It’s probably going to take me a few months to catch up,” Mendes said of her financial plight. “These last couple of weeks’ checks should have been good.”

For thousands of working people in Southwest Florida who live paycheck to paycheck, Wilma meant a week or so of no work due to electricity being down and businesses being closed. Add to that refrigerated food at home that spoiled and that means juggling bills.

Mendes is paid on a commission basis and few people were thinking about getting their dogs groomed the week before Wilma and the week afterward, she said.

“The end of October there’s usually a lot of people back (from the North),” she said. “It was just starting to get good and that storm hits.”

About 350 people wait in line to fill out food stamp applications Monday morning in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Collier Boulevard in Collier County. Department of Children & Families, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is implementing the Food for Florida Disaster Food Stamp program for people adversely affected by Hurricane Wilma.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

About 350 people wait in line to fill out food stamp applications Monday morning in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Collier Boulevard in Collier County. Department of Children & Families, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is implementing the Food for Florida Disaster Food Stamp program for people adversely affected by Hurricane Wilma.

The state launched the “Food for Florida” program Friday in 12 counties affected by the storm, including Collier and Lee counties. Today is the last day to sign up in Naples at the Super Wal-Mart at 9885 Collier Blvd. and in Fort Myers at Gulf Coast Center at 5820 Buckingham Road.

The applications will be reviewed to make sure nobody has applied who already is a food stamp recipient and to avoid income fraud but there’s no sure-fire way to stop some cheaters, DCF officials say

“We will do everything we can to prevent real fraud,” said Cynthia Haradean, a fraud investigator with the Naples office of DCF who helped hand out applications in different languages Monday.

About 4,000 people applied for the assistance in Naples from Friday through Sunday and another 2,000 people were expected to apply Monday and today. In Immokalee, 3,500 people applied from Friday through Sunday at a tent-side location at First and Main streets. Immokalee’s sign-up location ended Sunday.

During the first day of the program, the wait in line was up to four hours in Naples but the program was streamlined to cut the wait time, said Enrique Soria, also with DCF in Naples.

Paula Wiben, 32, had her 4-year-old son, Sean, waiting in line with her Monday and he was getting cranky.

“My husband lost three days of work,” she said. “We lost probably $200 worth of food in the refrigerator. Everything went bad.”

Cate DeLauter, 25, moved to Naples from Maryland three months ago with her husband and 16-month-old son. They went without electricity for four days in their apartment. The food stamps will be a big help.

“Especially since by my husband was out of work for a week,” she said. “It will help out with some of the unexpected expenses.”

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