Why Some Kids May Feel Flint Water Effects But Are No Longer Eligible for Help
By Elisha Anderson
Thousands of Flint children are expected to receive extra money this month for nutritional foods that can limit the effects of lead exposure.
But the unknown number of families who fled the city in the midst of the crisis to get away from the lead-contaminated water won't be eligible even though their children may suffer health effects.
Among them is 4-year-old Sincere Smith -- the boy who became one of the most recognized faces of the water crisis when his picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
That's because the $7 million in additional food assistance is going to about 15,000 kids who qualify for food assistance benefits and live in Flint, but not those who moved from the city, like Sincere and his family did last year.
"If I had moved to another state, I could understand being treated differently and everything, but moving just 15 minutes away, I feel like ... it's kind of unfair," said Sincere's mom, Ariana Hawk. "I'm still within Genesee County."
She told the Free Press she thinks all kids impacted by the Flint water crisis should be entitled to the same benefits, even if they don't live in the city anymore or don't qualify for food assistance benefits.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services determined eligibility based on how they felt was the best way to allocate the limited money, spokesman Bob Wheaton said.
"We decided that we wanted to focus on providing this nutritional food to people who are still living in Flint," he said.
Qualifying families will get a one-time payment of $420 per eligible child, which will be automatically added to their Bridge cards, state officials said. That money is in addition to other food assistance, is intended to be used throughout the year and is on top of the $30 per child families received in March.
MDHHS will issue the funds based on food assistance eligibility because it allows it to focus on assisting the families who are "the most in need," Wheaton said. It can be used to purchase food that qualifies under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but the department recommends recipients spend the money on foods high in calcium, vitamin C and iron.
The $7 million comes from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant dollars, officials said.
To be eligible for the payment, residents must have lived in a Flint ZIP code identified as being served by the City of Flint water system on Feb. 28, and still live in such ZIP code April 1..
Hawk, a mother of five children who range in age from 3 months to 10 years, said she moved her family to Swartz Creek last year because of ongoing issues with the water.
"I moved because it was the best decision for me and my kids," she said.
While in the city, she cleaned Sincere's itchy, irritated skin using a washcloth and bowl of distilled water heated in the microwave or with wet wipes. He developed rough patches of skin on his legs, arms and face after Flint switched its water-supply source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014, Hawk said.
The boy's face became synonymous with the Flint water crisis when a photo of him -- taken by a Free Press photographer -- appeared on the cover of Time in January 2016. Sincere's skin has since cleared up, he likes playing with his toy trucks and some of his favorite games these days are hide-and-seek and tag.
His family lived in Flint during the peak of lead exposure, drank the water and cooked with it before the lead issue was revealed. The city's water became contaminated when corrosion-control chemicals weren't added after the water source change, causing lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures.
Hawk, 27, said she plans to move back to the city she calls home soon and said additional food assistance would go a long way in helping her buy fruits, vegetables and meats.
"That would help me out a lot, me and my kids," she said.
There's not an exact date for when the payments will be issued, but the goal is this month, a letter from MDHHS to an eligible family said.
"We are finalizing the necessary computer system changes," Wheaton said. "And will get the payments to residents as soon as we can following completion of those changes."
It is unclear how many families have moved from the city and would qualify for the additional benefits if they still lived there.
An updated population estimate for Flint is to be released later this month by the U.S. Census Bureau.
And a tracking system is in the works to identify residents affected by the crisis. But anecdotally, officials know people have moved, said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint who was instrumental in exposing the lead problem.
"A lot of people have unfortunately left the city, and they should still qualify," she said of benefits for kids impacted by the water crisis.
While explaining the importance of eating nutritious food, Hanna-Attisha said lead lasts in a person's blood for a short period and eventually gets stored in their bones, where it can last for decades.
"When you have poor nutrition in the future, it comes back out of your bones, back into your bloodstream and causes that neurotoxicity all over again," she said. "In addition, we know that children obviously need great nutrition for brain development."
Flint residents are still are using bottled water or filtered water for their drinking water, but state officials said the water quality in Flint has improved significantly and continues to improve.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the state continues its recommendation that residents use filters due to the chance for disruption in the system as the city replaces service lines," Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder, said in an e-mail.
Felecia Waters, a mother of three whose children played with Hawk's kids last week, said she uses filtered water to do the dishes, but still uses bottled water for cooking and drinking, like many other Flint residents.
She received additional food benefits in March and expects to get a payment of $1,260 this month to buy food. She said she thinks anybody impacted by the crisis should qualify as well.
"I honestly just feel like the whole city of Flint deserves, and should be entitled to, the food assistance benefits," she said.
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