Grocery vouchers are granted to more than 200,000 people in Hawaii, an all-time high, and the program has grown steadily every month this year despite a recent drop in the unemployment rate.
It reflects how food insecurity remains an issue in Hawaii as the pandemic drags on, proponents say.
Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program grew as the spread of the coronavirus led to a surge in unemployment and a slump in family income. The state also made enrollment easier by allowing people to apply online and suspending the six-month eligibility check.
“The reality is, we’ve never had so many SNAP recipients in the state of Hawaii,” said Brian Donohoe, who heads the welfare, employment, and support division for the Hawaii Department of Human Services.
Hawaii’s unemployment rate is 7.7%, well above pre-pandemic levels but much lower than last year’s highs. But that did little to curb demand for grocery brands.
“We expect at least a stabilization in the number of recipients and maybe even a reduction,” said Donohoe. “Were not. We’re seeing a slow, steady increase in the numbers.”
The re-implementation of rules that require eligibility recertification – which were suspended as part of the COVID-19 relief effort – could lead to a decline in program enrollments and raise concerns about whether families who actually need help may be missing out.
Amy Marvin, chief executive officer of Hawaii Food Bank, said the number of people picking up food donations each month had been slowly decreasing, but demand was still 60% higher than before the pandemic.
Marvin predicts food insecurity in Hawaii will remain above pre-pandemic levels for the next year and a half.
Instead of holding large events, the Hawaii Food Bank works with nonprofits like churches and animal shelters to distribute food throughout the community.
“Even if we no longer see people waiting for food on the autobahn, that need still exists,” said Marvin.
The historically high enrollment in the grocery stamp program is part of a wider surge in public services to support those who struggled during the pandemic.
For example, the number of people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program has also grown steadily, currently exceeding 421,000, compared to less than 330,000 in May 2019.
But this safety net, which has been strengthened by emergency ordinances and laws, is beginning to weaken. The eviction moratorium is to be lifted in two weeks. And the rules for safety net programs that were relaxed during the pandemic are now being reintroduced. In May, the employment office re-issued the requirements for proof of job search.
Food stamp attendance could decline as federal regulations requiring states and counties to ensure enrolled people are actually eligible came back into effect on July 1. The state has since sent thousands of letters to families asking them to prove they are still eligible for the program.
If they fail to meet citizenship and income requirements, they will lose benefit. But people who are just above the SNAP income limit may also struggle with food insecurity.
“We are very concerned internally about the changes to the SNAP registry and just want to be sure we are ready to respond,” said Marvin of Hawaii Food Bank.
So far, relatively few people have responded to the state’s efforts to recertify their eligibility to receive grocery stamps, even after the state worked on a media campaign to get people to respond. Donohoe said a little over 50% of people the state requested for recertification responded.
In a pre-pandemic world, 80% would do this. He fears that some beneficiaries may overlook the state’s letter and end up being surprised if they don’t see money on their electronic benefit transfer cards.
“I know families are hungry and I don’t want them to wait,” he said.
While anyone who is hungry is worrying, local advocates are particularly concerned about how food security gaps could affect children.
Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said Hawaii went from “one of the most food-safe states for children to one of the least” during the pandemic.
Recent reports, including one from the national advocacy group, Feeding America, have shown an alarming increase in the number of children at risk of hunger.
“Our children are among the weakest in the country,” said Marvin.
According to Nicole Woo, of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, Hawaiian families have until August 2 to sign up to receive the final round of the Pandemic EBT, a replacement for school lunch during the correspondence school year.
The Ministry of Education announced that it will provide all children with a free lunch at school for the coming school year.
Woo said the effects of food insecurity could continue well beyond the end of the pandemic.
“We know that even brief spurts of poverty for children have lasting effects on their learning and future income,” she said.
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