Miami’s city government has spent about $2.3 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds on grocery gift cards to give to residents, part of a series of financial assistance programs meant to help those hurting in the pandemic — but some commissioners are questioning the administration’s decision to only purchase from Publix.
Long lines seen at distribution locations across each of the city of Miami’s five districts this week show a great need among residents. At an event this week, Mayor Francis Suarez noted the difficulty with serving a limited number of people with available funds.
“We were able to help 500 people in our community get much needed support and help for their groceries during this difficult time,” Suarez said on Wednesday. “It’s very sad to see how many people came and the fact that we had to limit people.”
The limitations created by only distributing Publix gift cards are also resonating in some districts where people shop at stores that are more affordable and closer to their homes, such as Sedano’s Supermarket, Presidente Supermarket, Fresco y Más and Milam’s Market.
“For most of the elderly we have, Publix is just too far and more expensive,” said Commissioner Joe Carollo, who represents Little Havana, the Roads and part of Shenandoah.
The city chose Publix as the sole vendor for the first bulk purchase, which came with a 5% discount on each card, according to administrators. On 10,000 cards worth $250 each, Publix discounted $12.50 per card. John Heffernan, the city’s deputy director of communications, said the city initially bought the first batch of cards from Publix “because of their ability to meet the tight time constraints required to quickly implement the programs.”
The money for the gift cards came after Miami-Dade County disbursed federal CARES Act relief funds in November. The city has until Dec. 31 to spend the money, under federal rules. With about $1.2 million out of $3.55 million left to purchase cards, the city might make some changes.
Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla is sponsoring a resolution on the Dec. 10 commission agenda that would give the city flexibility to purchase VISA cash cards of different amounts that would allow people to go to their preferred market, or perhaps to purchase medicine.
By providing cards of $100 to $125, Díaz de la Portilla said the money could be stretched farther to reach more households.
“The residents are the ones that should have the choice of where to shop and what they need to buy. Not government,” Díaz de la Portilla told the Miami Herald. “This should only be about what’s best for our residents.”
The commissioner said residents in his district, which includes Allapattah and Grapeland Heights, would be better served if they could take gift cards to their local preferred markets — especially those without cars who walk to the nearest market.
“Maybe it’s easier to go to one vendor and buy everything, but why not go to local vendors in our community?” Díaz