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Hawaii to tap ‘Pandemic EBT’ program for an extra $25M in food aid

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                                State Sen. Laura Thielen wonders why the governor isn’t proposing anything with the CARES money to help the “people in Hawaii that are hurting.”


    State Sen. Laura Thielen wonders why the governor isn’t proposing anything with the CARES money to help the “people in Hawaii that are hurting.”

State officials plan to start a new program that will allow all families with children who receive free lunches at public schools to also get help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

The state Department of Human Services is asking state lawmakers for $1.5 million to build and launch a new “Pandemic EBT.” The money would pay for software to process applications from families who apply for the new food aid program. Lawmakers are poised to approve the request.

The department aims to start distributing benefits under two new federal programs sometime next month, but the benefits will be retroactive to the beginning of March, said DHS Director Pankaj Bhanot.

Bhanot outlined the program hours after a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing became heated as lawmakers questioned how Gov. David Ige’s administration will use federal CARES Act funding to help many thousands of unemployed workers, some of whom cannot afford to pay rent or buy food.

The state has received $862 million in federal funding from the CARES Act, and lawmakers say they plan to amend Senate Bill 75 to distribute $179 million of that money to the neighbor island counties.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has requested $100 million of that money to respond to the pandemic, while the state Department of Health has requested another $31 million to upgrade its contact tracing and disease control programs and upgrade its scientific and clinical laboratories.

Ige has said he wants to use much of the remaining federal money to replenish the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, while leading state lawmakers say they want to deposit more than $500 million in the state’s “rainy day” budget reserve fund to use later.

But those plans left some lawmakers cold.

“I guess what I want to know is, Why isn’t the governor proposing anything with this CARES money that’s going to go out and help people in Hawaii that are hurting?” said state Sen. Laura Thielen (D, Hawaii Kai- Waimanalo-Kailua). “These tend to be the workers that are waitresses, tour bus drivers, hula dancers, people that can’t go without one paycheck, let alone two months without a paycheck.”

Thielen cited Montana, where the governor recently announced $123 million in emergency grants with money from the CARES Act, including emergency housing assistance and food support.

“We have altogether probably 130,000 or more people who’ve not yet seen a dime of any type of unemployment or federal funds for unemployed workers or self-employed or independent contractors, and many of them have been out of work since March,” she said.

State Sen. Kai Kahele echoed those comments, urging administration officials to push federal funds out to food banks and nonprofit organizations “that are providing food right now.”

“We have hundreds of thousands of people who are unemployed that are not getting their first-time checks. They are not getting their biweekly checks. People are starving. They are hungry. We have food lines like we’ve never seen before, and if we leave this Legislature appropriating an $862.8 million budget and we are not allocating money for the most immediate needs of our people right now, I don’t know how we do that,” said Kahele (D, Hilo).

“That is something that I want to see the governor lead this state on,” Kahele said.

Ige’s chief of staff, Linda Chu Takayama, told lawmakers the state Department of Human Services is seeking $2 million in federal funding and has also asked for permission to fill 100 positions to help cope with social needs in the community.

Bhanot said $1.5 million of that money is needed to stand up the new federal “Pandemic EBT” computer application, which includes families with a child in any meal program at school. Those families are eligible for a special food supplement through the SNAP system, he said.

The new program is expected to provide an extra $14.3 million in benefits for March, April and May to 24,000 families that are now SNAP recipients in Hawaii.

Another roughly 20,000 households whose children receive subsidized school meals but do not now receive SNAP benefits also will be eligible for up to $10.7 million in benefits, Bhanot said. The SNAP application is at

Bhanot said the department is also seeking permission to hire 100 workers to prepare for what the Department of Human Services expects will be a huge task of screening, qualifying and processing people for federal and state aid in the months ahead.

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