Long lines for Miami’s grocery gift card giveaway shows need — but why only Publix?

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.

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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 de la Portilla said.

A switch to local grocers would be welcome in other districts.

“I’m certainly open to using other vendors, and I definitely want to support local, smaller businesses as well,” said Commissioner Ken Russell.

Heffernan said the city is already engaging with additional local grocery chains to determine if they can partner for the remaining gift cards that will be purchased.

In the Liberty City area, one community leader said his neighbors were simply happy to get any help at all.

“Our folks are just happy to get the card,” said Samuel Latimore, a Liberty City resident, adding that he understood the tight time constraints the city is under. “We’re just thrilled to death to be able to get the $250 card and go to Publix.”

The first batch of cards were distributed to the office of district commissioners according to the poverty levels in each area, with 1,670 cards set aside for the mayor to hand out.

▪ District 1, represented by Díaz de la Portilla, was allocated 1,590 cards. The commissioner said he returned the cards immediately. “My office has not, and will not, distribute a single Publix card,” he said.

▪ District 2, which includes Miami’s waterfront communities from Coconut Grove up through downtown and Morningside and is represented by Russell, received 1,130 cards.

▪ District 3, represented by Carollo, received 1,620 cards.

▪ District 4, which includes Flagami, Silver Bluff and Shenandoah and is represented by Commissioner Manolo Reyes, received 1,360 cards.

▪ District 5, which include Liberty City, Little Haiti, Overtown and the Upper Eastside and is represented by Commissioner Jeffrey Watson, received 2,630 cards.

The city can still purchase another several thousand gift cards for distribution, though the final number will depend on whether the amount per card could vary, as proposed by Díaz de la Portilla’s resolution.

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