During the pandemic, a family from House Springs in rural Jefferson County tried unsuccessfully to get food stamps.
“We tried over two years ago but the computer rejected us,” the family matriarch wrote.
She emailed me recently to explain the family’s difficulties in obtaining food assistance. She asked me not to use their names.
“I have never been able to reach a real, living person. My husband continued to refuse to try again until recently.
Their struggles are similar to those of people across Missouri who have battled the broken application system for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The problems were amplified at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people lost their jobs and food aid needs soared. SNAP is funded by the federal government, but states are responsible for distributing aid.
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Earlier this month, a federal judge denied Missouri’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit to fix the state’s problems, calling the ongoing delays “unacceptable.”
The lawsuit was filed in February on behalf of a St. Louis woman named Mary Holmes, and others like her, who were denied food stamps because they couldn’t navigate the faulty system of State. They were stuck for hours or days, or never called to arrange the interview that is part of the process. The problems were so widespread that people began sharing their stories on the Missouri Department of Social Services Facebook page, explaining their delays or how often the system hung up on them.
During a hearing in March, U.S. District Court Judge Doug Harpool made it clear that the delays outlined in the lawsuit needed to be corrected.
“It would be incumbent on the State of Missouri to make it as easy as possible for their Missourians to take advantage of this federal benefit as much as Californians, New Yorkers or Illinoisans,” Harpool said. “I don’t need food stamps, but I get upset if I’m put on hold for 20 minutes. And I can’t imagine someone who’s probably less sophisticated and doesn’t have unlimited minutes like me waiting two hours and maybe not even being reached. Or if they have something in their life, they just have to do it and then they have to start over. It’s not acceptable. So try to solve this problem.
In court documents, state attorneys say they made improvements to the system, noting that Holmes, for example, was eventually approved. But that wasn’t enough to avoid trial, Harpool said.
“Call center wait times are still quite long,” attorney Katharine Deabler-Meadows said with the National Center for Law and Economic Justicetold me last month, after Harpool’s decision.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has filed a lawsuit, along with Eastern Missouri Legal Services and the Stinson law firm.
“We hope it won’t take long to resolve these issues,” Deabler-Meadows said in an interview. “We would like to see these call center issues resolved as quickly as possible.”
That’s because delays, caused by old IT systems, staffing issues and other bureaucratic failures, still affect people like the House Springs family who emailed me recently. They say they finally navigated the application process in late July, but it hasn’t been easy.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic turns into an endemic, COVID-19 cases have risen again, inflation has driven up food and rent costs, and food banks are again reporting a growing list of hungry people in Missouri.
“The need is everywhere,” Tim Fetsch of the St. Louis Area Foodbank recently told the Post-Dispatch.
People with rural sensitivities are sometimes a little shy about letting their neighbors know they need food. But that doesn’t lessen the need, says the House Springs woman.
Her electronic benefit transfer cards with federal assistance landed in her mailbox last week.
“Getting food stamps isn’t impossible, but jumping through hoops is extremely difficult,” she says. “People complain about ‘wellness,’ but I don’t think we have a wellness program in this state. We are poor and helpless.