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State offers more food stamp flexibility amid record participation

Updated: Mar. 4, 2021 at 4:47 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As Hawaii continues to grapple with high unemployment and a slow economic recovery, tens of thousands of people are turning to food stamps for assistance.

Nearly 198,000 people in Hawaii are now on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

Hawaii has never seen numbers that high. Since February 2020, SNAP rolls in the islands have swelled by 30% ― or more than 45,000 people.

“We saw enormous numbers and enormous increases particularly in June and September, October,” said Brian Donohoe, who is administrator of the Department of Human Services’ Benefit, Employment, and Support Service Division.

He said the spike slowed in December. While there is still an increase each month, it’s more steady.

To keep up with the growing demand for help, DHS upgraded its SNAP enrollment system last summer and 90% of all new applications are now processed online. The other 10% are people who don’t have access to the technology so in-person or phone assistance is needed.

DHS also added online grocery purchases for SNAP members. They can use the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, like debit cards, to make purchases for pick-up at select Walmart locations.

Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice, praised DHS for making adjustments to meet the growing demand during the pandemic.

“When people need to do grocery shopping and are scared to leave their homes, especially seniors and people with mobility issues, having that ability to use their EBT online is extremely important.”

Walmart is currently the only retailer in Hawaii that meets the federal requirements, but DHS is hoping that can expand soon.

Donohoe said the system is not easy to set up.

“It becomes an an IT nightmare for a small company so they kind of tap out before they begin that’s the hard part,” he said.

SNAP benefits are funded by the federal government.

In December, Congress provided a 15% increase, which lasts through June. In Hawaii, that’s an extra $52 per month on top of the average $346 monthly benefit.

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