Food stamp enrollment surges in Hawaii, with 9% now getting aid
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Statewide participation in the food stamp program increased by 25 percent — with more than 23,000 additional residents enrolled — over the nine-month period ending in June, according to new figures that advocates say show just how much Hawai'i families are struggling.
The increase is by far the largest the state has seen in the program over the past five years.
And it meant that state-wide, 120,193 people — or 1 in 11 people in Hawai'i — were getting food stamps in June, the state said.
"People are just having a harder time making ends meet," said Susan Doyle, executive director of Aloha United Way.
People like Lany Rizan, 43, a single mother of three teenagers, who was laid off last month from a janitorial job.
The Kalihi resident is now working part time and searching for a full-time job.
"The bills are very expensive," Rizan said last week, as she applied for food stamps for the first time at the state's Downtown office. "It's hard."
A state food stamp administrator said many of the new applicants have never asked for help before. They're turning to the program, she said, after being laid off, taking pay cuts or seeing their hours reduced.
"We're getting a new kind of client coming in the door," said Linda Tsark, of the state Department of Human Services. "We know that it's people who have never applied for benefits."
U.S. RECORD SET
The increase follows a nationwide trend of increased food stamp participation as people try to stay afloat through one of the deepest recessions since the Great Depression.
In May, a record 34 million Americans were on food stamps. That month, the federal government doled out about $4.6 billion in food stamps, for an average per-person benefit of about $134.
Food stamps are entirely federally funded. States pitch in with administrative costs, a portion of which are covered by the federal government.
In June, DHS officials said, nearly $26 million in food stamp benefits came into the state.
Advocates say the increases in the food stamp program are a strong indicator that people are hurting.
And the local figures come as free food pantries around the state are also seeing longer lines and more requests for help.
"We're basically hearing that the number of people who are waiting in lines have doubled or sometimes tripled compared to last year," said Lori Kaya, Hawaii Foodbank spokeswoman. The nonprofit gave out 10 million pounds of food to agencies in fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30, compared with 9 million pounds the year before. "The need for emergency food has increased," Kaya said.
From Sept. 30 to June, 23,642 people newly enrolled in the food stamp program in Hawai'i.
Far fewer joined the program in previous years.
From Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008, about 6,900 new people enrolled in the program.
The rolls increased by about 1,700 people during the previous federal fiscal year, figures show.
The program actually saw a decrease in the number of Hawai'i residents participating in 2005 and 2006.
The new surge of food stamp applications in the Islands is slowing the process of enrolling in the program.
Tsark said it takes about 18 to 21 days from the time an application is received for the state to schedule an authorization appointment required for new enrollees. A year ago, it took about 10 to 14 days, on average, for the appointment to get scheduled.
The state is required by the federal government to complete a food stamp application within 30 days of receiving it.
Tsark said the state is doing that in about 87 percent of cases, down from about 90 percent last year.
She said the state is trying to improve that by adding more staff in some parts of the state, including Maui, that have bigger backlogs.
The federal government is also trying to beef up the food stamp program in hopes it will help people emerge from financial crisis.
The federal economic stimulus package included a 13.6 percent increase in benefits for residents on food stamps, starting in April.
Under the increase, the benefit for a three-member household rose from $725 a month to $824.
The money may be spent only on food items at participating grocery stores.
Officials say they suspect much of the new increases in food stamp enrollment are because of the global economic crisis. Participation increases in previous years, though, were largely attributed to more awareness about food stamps and state efforts to reduce the long-held stigma associated with the benefit, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.
State officials also have tried to make using food stamps easier.
Benefits are loaded onto an electronic card, which can be used at cash registers like a debit card.
And the state recently allowed participants to conduct an annual reauthorization for the program by telephone.
Formerly, participants were required to come into an office, which was difficult for those in rural parts of the Neighbor Islands.