(The Center Square) – The number of Floridians enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) neared 4 million in July, about 18 percent of the state’s population, with 1 million new recipients signing on since March.

No other state has recorded a higher increase in food stamp recipients this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), and only Maryland’s SNAP enrollment this year has increased more by percentage than Florida.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), which administers SNAP, Florida’s SNAP enrollment in March of about 3 million people increased 30 percent by July – and by 35 percent since July 2019.

DCF reported 760,315 Miami-Dade County residents were enrolled in SNAP in July, up 46 percent from 519,938 in March. SNAP enrollment has increased since March by 62 percent in Broward County and by 53 percent in Palm Beach County, DCF said.

Between March and July, 50,000 people in Duval County enrolled in SNAP. In July, more than 152,000 Hillsborough County and 82,000 Pinellas County households were receiving food stamps, reported DCF.

A significant component of the expanded recipient base, however, no longer may be eligible for SNAP benefits unless Gov. Ron DeSantis extends his emergency order that waived work and recertification requirements to receive food stamps.

That order, extended by one month in July, expires Sept. 1.

Since March, under DeSantis’ emergency order, DCF has waived the requirement that SNAP applicants be employed or searching for work, and it has extended “recertifications,” allowing recipients to receive benefits without going through re-application processes.

Florida requires “able-bodied” SNAP recipients between 18 to 49 years old spend at least 80 hours a month working, participating in a work-training program or volunteering.

DCF began phasing in the work-search requirements in July, but a coalition of 52 organizations pleaded for, and secured, an extension through August.

“You don’t need to go hungry, your kids don’t need to go hungry,” DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said when the waiver was extended to Sept. 1, before noting on that early July day that 240,000 job openings were posted statewide.

Advocates such as Florida Policy Institute and Feeding America – a national association of food banks lobbying to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent – said this is not a good time to narrow eligibility standards.

After dropping in June, the state’s unemployment rate rose to 11.3 percent in July, nearly a full percentage point higher than the national unemployment rate. Re-imposing work requirements would be a distraction for Floridians already facing an arduous and tentative job market.

The amount in food stamps Florida recipients receive monthly also could decline beginning next month.

In March, as part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress allowed states to allocate SNAP recipients the maximum monthly benefit based on household size, without factoring in recipients’ actual income levels; $194 per individual, $646 for a family of four.

DCF has been disbursing maximum SNAP benefits since March. The CARES Act enhancement expires in September. Its proposed extension is entangled in the impasse between Senate Republicans and House Democrats.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which administers the SNAP program, said in July it would extend the max benefit waiver if DeSantis made a case for it in an executive order.

“FNS will approve extensions beyond August on an extremely limited basis,” FNS Director Gene Malveaux told Florida DCF Economic Self-Sufficiency Programs Director Patti Grogan in a July 29 email.

“In order to receive an extension beyond August,” Malveaux wrote, “a state must have an emergency order that extends into the month in which the state is requesting the adjustment and provide data that demonstrates the adjustment continues to be warranted.”