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Food stamp help slow in coming

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The state is working to tackle a backlog of applications for food stamps, which has left needy families in some cases waiting months to get benefits.

In the worst cases, officials said, families are waiting three months or more for a face-to-face interview to confirm their eligibility for food aid.

"One of the strategies is to at least catch up," said Lillian Koller, Department of Human Services director.

Other states are trying to do the same.

According to a new Associated Press analysis, Hawaii is one of dozens of states nationwide grappling with food stamp application backlogs, triggered by big surges in the number of people turning to the benefits in tough economic times.


In the islands about 20 percent of food stamp applications are taking longer than 30 days to process, according to the most recent figures compiled by the state.

Maui has the worst timeliness record. Just half of its applications are processed within 30 days.

Koller said she is trying to ease the backlog of applications in a number of ways. Teams of workers at several eligibility offices are being tasked with handling only backlogged applications, she said.

And food stamp applicants in many cases are being screened over the phone, rather than in person, to speed up their review process.

The backlog comes as the surge in applications shows no signs of abating. The number of people receiving food stamps statewide increased by 21 percent in March, compared with the previous year, federal figures show.

Nearly 137,000 people in Hawaii now get food stamp payments, which are loaded on a debit card and can be used for groceries at participating markets. And even more people are expected to turn to the program in the coming months.

Polly Kauahi, director of development at the Hawaii Foodbank, said the need for emergency food aid is not tapering off. "Any economic recovery takes a long time to reach the people we serve," she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the food stamp or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, requires applications for food stamps be processed within 30 days of being filed.

Emergency applications – for the poorest families or those facing imminent hunger – must be processed within seven days.

Koller said emergency applications in Hawaii are being handled on time. But nonemergency applications – the vast majority – are in many cases processed over the 30-day maximum.

Families in other states are also waiting longer for benefits. Last fiscal year, about a third of applications in Texas waited more than 30 days for food assistance. In Rhode Island, according to the AP, nearly a quarter of new applications were delayed.

The USDA requires 95 percent of applications be processed on time, and Koller said Hawaii could face federal sanctions or fines if its timeliness does not improve.

The state has for several months raised concerns about backlogs for food stamps and other benefits programs, including for welfare and Quest health insurance.

The backlogs were a driving force behind the state’s controversial cost-cutting and modernization plan earlier this year, which would have included layoffs for 228 eligibility workers.

The plan was scrapped in the wake of a legislative measure preventing eligibility offices from closing on the neighbor islands.

Critics charged the plan would have worsened wait times, not improved them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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