Large turnout, system non-enforcement limits food assistance effort

Thousands turned out for temporary food assistance in Lakeland, but many were turned away due to the large turnout.

LAKELAND, Fla. – By the time the 'Food for Florida' site at the RP Funding Building opened at 7 a.m. Saturday, thousands were in line to sign up for temporary food assistance following Hurricane Irma.

By noon, the line was cut off completely as new arrivals were told to come back Sunday.

David Ocasio, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the decision was made based on safety concerns due to the large crowd and because those waiting after that point would've been unable to apply before the site closed at 6 p.m.

Those who showed up weren't happy about it.

"I just got out here and found out that you can’t get in," said one woman who thought that her pre-registration would get her in. "We all have our registration, we all followed the guidelines, but we’re getting turned away before 6 o'clock. Did they not learn from Plant City?"

Tens of thousands of people lined up at Plant City Stadium last weekend to apply for the same temporary food assistance.

The assistance is for families that normally would not qualify for food stamps. Those who qualify based on income and other disaster-related expenses, like proof of loss of food or missed work, can receive two months of food assistance. Amounts vary based on household size.

Those currently on food assistance do not qualify.

MORE: Do you qualify for food assistance?

An estimated 7,500 people applied for the temporary assistance in Lakeland on Saturday, Ocasio said.

But like Plant City, officials found more people than expected, including those coming from other counties. What also didn't help was that a system designating certain sign-up days based on the first letter of the applicant’s last name was not being enforced.

"It should’ve been more organized," said Cassie Carnley of Poinciana, who made it in line right before the cut-off. "It’s not fair and they knew as big as this was they should’ve opened more places (in the county)."

Carnley, who said she was in line since 8 a.m., was still waiting to apply by 5 p.m.

She said she was relieved to still be in line.

Others weren't as lucky, like Colleen Rodriguez of Davenport.

The doors were locked when she arrived.

"I’ll come back tomorrow I guess," she said. "I had heard all these other nightmare stories and thought ‘well maybe if I catch it at the end,’ but apparently it’s been closed down for a while.”

The 'Food for Florida' site in Polk County is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Wednesday. Officials are encouraging people to pre-register online before arriving in person to expedite the process. Click here to register online.

Here’s where you can apply for the Food for Florida Disaster Food Assistance Program:

  • Oct. 5-10 (7am-6pm): Plant City Stadium, 1810 E. Park Road, Plant City
  • Oct. 13-16 (7am-6pm): Westfield Sarasota Square, 8201 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
  • Oct. 14-17 (7am-6pm): RP Funding Building, 701 Lime Street, Lakeland
  • Oct. 15-16 (7am-6pm): Desoto Square Mall, 303 301 Blvd. W., Bradenton
  • Oct. 22-24 (7am-6pm): Land O'Lakes Rec Center, 3302 Collier Pkwy., Land O'Lakes

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