As economic pain of pandemic widens, need for food stamps soars

Updated: Oct. 29, 2020 at 6:22 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Back in April, when Hawaii’s economy began to shutdown, Meleina Hancock was laid off from her job as an art instructor at a local museum.

Along with seeking unemployment benefits, the Kakaako resident also applied for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps.

“For me, I never actually thought of applying for SNAP or food stamps. ... It never really occurred to me and I don’t want sound like a privileged white person or something," she said.

Hancock is among the thousands of working professionals with college degrees who have turned to the state’s SNAP program for the first time to feed their households.

According to the state Department of Human Services, the number of residents receiving SNAP benefits has risen from about 155,000 last year to 179,000. That’s a 15.4% increase.

That surge in demand has contributed to a backlog. Hancock said her application has been delayed by two months and that she’s still waiting for approval. She said she has applied several times.

There’s another reason for the log jam.

The federal government used to require states to interview new applicants but it waived that requirement at the beginning of the pandemic. But that waiver expired in August.

“Our state, like every state, had a backlog of like five months of eligibility interviews and re-certifications and so some people ran into long wait periods. They probably got caught in that huge wave," said Nicole Woo, policy analyst at the Hawaii Appleseed Center.

Woo, who spoke with the DHS about the backlog on Wednesday, said the good news is that the federal government once again dropped the interview requirement at the end of September.

The state said it has since reduced wait times to an average of about eight days.

“It looks like they’re working their way through the backlog,” said Woo.

For Hancock, it couldn’t come too soon. Her unemployment benefits ran out earlier this month and it’s unclear when she’ll get an extension.

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