Until the coronavirus, Ashley Mullen had never applied for food assistance benefits.
“I never qualified in the past, but for COVID-19 I did because I barely made any income for a few months,” she said.
She’s not alone. With jobless claims still hitting record highs, an end to the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit, and extended school shutdowns continuing to cut off critical supplemental food sources for millions of children, food insecurity has spread far beyond South Florida’s lower-income communities.
Nearly 4 million Florida households are now receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, more than 40% increase since February. In response to the crisis, the Florida Department of Children and Families, under the direction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), increased all SNAP benefits, known informally as food stamps, and temporarily waived much of the arduous application approval process. But the federal government will do away with that waiver this month, likely driving millions of families to hunger. For some in South Florida, the Urban Oasis Project is a much-needed lifeline.
Established in Miami-Dade 10 years ago, Urban Oasis is geared toward helping individuals who participate in assistance programs and is committed to meeting the food security needs of all communities, not just one demographic.
“What we are trying to do here is create local and really accessible fresh food in Miami… confronting economic privilege and racism,” said Art Friedrich, president of the organization.
Making healthy, locally grown food accessible to all is Urban Oasis’s mission, one facilitated through workshops and classes on gardening methods, composting, and food preservation and preparation, and by supporting community gardens and urban farmers markets, which are typically geared to white, female, well-educated and affluent consumers. SNAP recipients are able to double their benefit monies when shopping for fresh produce with the organization’s Florida Access Bucks program, an incentive for folks to purchase healthy, organic foods.
The nonprofit has also lent a hand to more than 100 low-income families during the pandemic by providing free, biweekly boxes filled with local fresh fruits and vegetables, personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies through its Project Maracuya.
“I’m particularly proud of that,” said Friedrich.
In addition to adjusting to the reality of COVID-19, the organization has stepped up its food distribution efforts through its virtual farmers market, an online delivery service.
“I have a son who is autoimmune compromised, so for us, finding a fresh market that worked with online deliveries is amazing,” said Micheleen Clancy.
She, like Mullen and other Urban Oasis customers, applied for SNAP benefits for the first time during the pandemic.
“We were originally drawn to the organization because it promoted the doubling of SNAP benefits,” said Clancy.
Mullen has found that the program encourages her to look for healthier food choices while taking into account her SNAP benefits. Scrolling online for fresh food markets, she found Urban Oasis and has stuck with it.
“That Urban Oasis is able to offer this kind of program tells me other organizations can do it as well,” said Mullen.
Visit Urban Oasis at urbanoasisproject.org to find out how you can access fresh fruits and vegetables in your community, as well as take advantage of programs like Florida Access Bucks and Project Maracuya.