At the grocery store, she only puts items in the cart she knows she can afford. Later, she will visit the food bank to get everything else she needs for herself and her daughter.
Amanda Smith of Fort Worth has been waiting for almost two months for benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income Americans put food on the table.
Applications for benefits are up an average of 67% each month since the pandemic began. As a result, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is taking 24 days to process applications, up 10 days from a year ago. Federal regulations require states to process the applications within 30 days.
Last year processing times were shorter because Texas Health and Human Services received federal approval to automatically extend benefits for recipients who were up for renewal. This flexibility allowed the agency to focus on processing applications, a spokesperson said. Health and Human Services began processing renewals in September 2020, resulting in longer waits, the agency said.
But beyond benefit delays, several other factors make SNAP hard to access, experts say: The application process is laborious, there are limited places people can get help signing up, and, often, applicants need professional guidance to navigate the process to make sure the application is submitted correctly.
About 43% of the 193,673 people in Tarrant County who were eligible for SNAP benefits in June applied and received them, according to Texas Health and Human Services. Only about 44% of Texans eligible for SNAP participate in the program — leaving up to $540 million of food benefits unused in Texas alone, according to research by the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty.
“This is an ongoing problem,” said Craig Gundersen, professor at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. “It’s not an isolated incident.”
After her long wait and receiving a letter about her application, Smith learned on July 27 that she had been denied benefits over a problem with her paperwork.
“I just have to use more of the money that I had allotted for bills and things for food because obviously you have to eat, everybody has to eat,” Smith said.
As Smith spends more money on food, she falls further behind on paying her bills, and her budget has become tighter than it was before she applied for benefits.
“All of these things just pile up,” Smith said.
Karen Harris, the executive coordinator at Community Food Bank, said she talks to clients each day who say their food stamps have been postponed and they are without food. Knowing that there are people who cannot provide food for their family on a daily basis is upsetting, she said, but knowing that there are more delays and hardships makes you wonder what the world is coming to.
Susan Buxton was at the food bank recently. She said the delay in receiving benefits means getting up early to stand in line at the food bank for an hour in the heat. She does this three times a week to get food for her daughter, son, husband and father-in-law.
Carlos Amos, who was also in line, said she did her SNAP renewal in May and did not receive her benefits until the end of June. She said the renewal usually takes only a week. She visits food banks twice a week and goes to the grocery store only to buy meat.
Nichole Wade said the Community Food Bank would be the first of five pantries she would visit that day. She said she applied for food stamps over three months ago. In the past, she’s received benefits as soon as the next day.
Khristian Howard, regional manager for SNAP strategies with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, said these delays create dire situations.
“Food is essential, so it’s not like you can kind of just pedal along,” Howard said. “Some people, while they may use pantries or rely on neighbors, a lot of times, it comes down to those tough decisions, or skipping meals.”
Where to get help
Help with filling out the application is available at a Texas Health and Human Services regional office or through the Texas Community Partner Program. There are eight community partners in Fort Worth.
But most of these offices are only open during regular business hours.
SNAP applicants between 16 and 59 must work at least 30 hours a week or participate in SNAP employment and training, a program under the Texas Workforce Commission. In Tarrant County, 37.5% of eligible SNAP individuals are between 18 and 59.
The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty is working on a project to increase SNAP participation by increasing application sites and increasing awareness about the program.