Hawaii sees large spike in applications for food stamps

With Hawaii’s unemployment rate skyrocketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of applicants for food stamps also increased dramatically.

In April, the first full month of the COVID-19 lockdown, the statewide number of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program recipients jumped to 171,451, an increase of nearly 20,000 from April 2019.

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That increase reversed a trend throughout the first three months of the year, when the number of SNAP recipients was consistently lower each month than in 2019.

In Hawaii County, nearly 800 people filed SNAP applications within the first week of May alone, about 20% of the state’s total during that same period.

However, the state Department of Human Services Benefit, Employment and Support Division, which administers SNAP, has not experienced any significant delay in service, said Brian Donohoe, the division’s administrator.

“It would be a crushing workload if we didn’t have a good system to process applications already,” Donohoe said, adding that his staff, who normally have to field 90-100 phone calls a day, are now conducting more than 500 each day.

Donohoe said federal guidelines mandate that applications be processed in a timely fashion, defining “timely” as “within 30 days of filing.” However, he said, his division has remained far ahead of that curve throughout the pandemic.

“We believe that, if you’re filing for this program, then that’s too long,” Donohoe said. “These people are hungry now. So we try to process everything the same day as it’s submitted, and we’ve been able to do that so far.”

The division’s impressive response rate, especially considering the state’s struggles in processing a massive upswing in unemployment claims, comes partly from certain emergency provisions implemented for the duration of the crisis, Donohoe said. For example, the division is permitted to waive elements of applicants’ interview processes and postpone eligibility reviews.

Donohoe said, based on anecdotal observations, it is likely that many of the recent SNAP applicants are applying for the first time.

“If a case is new, then we have to gather more information about them, and I’ve seen that some cases are taking longer,” Donohoe said. “So I’m only inferring, but it seems like those might be first-time cases. And the uptick in SNAP applicants corresponds to the spike in unemployment claims.”

Donohoe encouraged anyone who is unsure about their SNAP eligibility to apply.

“If you think you might be eligible, if you’re in need at all, send an application,” Donohoe said.

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SNAP application information can be found at humanservices.hawaii.gov/bessd/snap, and more information about how SNAP benefits affect other financial assistance programs can be found at humanservices.hawaii.gov/communications-2.

Email Mike Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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