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Messenger: ‘Unacceptable’ delays in Missouri food aid leave families to struggle

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Application for Missouri Food Stamps  rwk

In this illustration, an application for Missouri food stamps fronts an image of canned goods on a grocery store shelf. (Post-Dispatch illustration)

During the pandemic, a family from House Springs, in rural Jefferson County, tried unsuccessfully to obtain food stamps.

“We tried over two years ago but the computer rejected us,” wrote the matriarch of the family.

She emailed me recently to explain the family’s difficulties in obtaining food aid. She asked that I not use their names.

“Never could get to a real, live person. My husband kept refusing to try again until recently.”

Their struggles are similar to those of folks across Missouri who have battled the broken application system for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The problems were magnified early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were losing jobs and the need for food aid skyrocketed. SNAP is funded by the federal government but states are responsible for distributing the aid.

Earlier this month, a federal judge denied Missouri’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to fix the state’s issues, 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 state’s broken system. They were stuck on hold for hours or days, or were never called to set up the interview that is part of the process. The problems were so rampant that folks started sharing their stories on the Facebook page of the Missouri Department of Social Services, explaining their delays or how often the system hung up on them.

In 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 behoove the state of Missouri to make it as easy as possible for their Missourians to take advantage of that federal benefit as much as it is for Californians or New Yorkers or Illinoisans,” Harpool said. “I don’t need food stamps, but I get irritated if I’m put on hold for 20 minutes. And I can’t imagine someone who likely has less sophistication and doesn’t have unlimited minutes like I do waiting for two hours and then maybe not even getting reached. Or if they have something in their life they just have to do and so they then have to start over again. That’s not acceptable. So try to fix that.”

In court documents, attorneys for the state say they have made improvements to the system, noting that Holmes, for instance, was finally approved. But that wasn’t enough to head off the lawsuit, Harpool ruled.

“Wait times for the call center are still quite long,” attorney Katharine Deabler-Meadows with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, told me last month, after Harpool’s ruling.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit filed the lawsuit, along with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and the Stinson law firm.

“We’re hopeful that it won’t take long to fix these problems,” Deabler-Meadows said in an interview. “We would like to get these call center problems resolved as quickly as we can.”

That’s because the delays, caused by old computer systems, staffing problems and other bureaucratic failures, are still affecting people like the House Springs family who recently emailed me. They say they finally navigated the application process in late July, but it wasn’t easy.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic morphs into an endemic, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise again, inflation has bumped up food and rent costs, and food banks are again reporting a growing list of folks in Missouri who are hungry.

“The need is everywhere,” Tim Fetsch of the St. Louis Area Foodbank told the Post-Dispatch recently.

Folks with rural sensibilities are sometimes a little shy about their neighbors knowing that they need food. But that doesn’t diminish the need, says the woman from House Springs.

Her electronic benefit transfer cards with the federal aid landed in her mailbox last week.

“It is not impossible to get food stamps, but it is extremely difficult to jump through the hoops,” she says. “People complain about ‘welfare,’ but I don’t think we have a welfare program in this state. We are poor and powerless.”

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