'An impossible situation': Thousands of Texans wait months for new food stamp benefits

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has been falling behind in processing applications for food stamps for those in need.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has been falling behind in processing applications for food stamps for those in need.

Most of the desperate calls pouring into Catholic Charities of Central Texas over the past month shared a particular theme: People can’t afford to buy food. They applied for food stamps months ago. They’re still waiting for those benefits.

“Sixty days, 90 days, that's such an excruciating amount of time for a parent to wonder, every single day, ‘How am I going to put food in my baby's belly tonight?’” said Sara Ramirez, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central Texas, which helps people with utility bills, rent and other short-term assistance.

“We have some families that are like, ‘I have money to put gas in the car to go to work, but I need to feed my kid, too,’” Ramirez told me. Others are finding money for food by skipping medications, or adults are skipping meals so they can feed their children, she said.

“People are trying to make the best of an impossible situation.”

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is supposed to process applications for food stamps — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — within 30 days. HHSC spokeswoman Jennifer Ruffcorn said the agency hit that target about 75% of the time last month — but that still leaves about 138,000 unprocessed applicants who've been waiting longer, often for a few months.

In some cases, the wait has grown to 6 months, according to an email that anonymous HHSC whistleblowers sent to Gov. Greg Abbott and agency leaders last week, just before the fortunate among us gathered for our Thanksgiving feasts.

Those whistleblowers have warned for months of a worsening situation: In August, they said, new food stamp applicants in Texas were waiting an average of 75 days to receive benefits.

In September, they said, the average wait surpassed 100 days — prompting U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett, Greg Casar and 11 other Congressional Democrats from Texas to send a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate. (Food stamps are administered by the state, using funding from the feds.)

The HHSC staffers who process SNAP applications are already overwhelmed with the massive task of reevaluating the eligibility of everyone who is on Medicaid, a reckoning prompted by the end of the COVID-19 health emergency. Not surprisingly, the Texans caught up in the worst part of the food stamp backlog are those who are also waiting for other benefits, such as Medicaid.

Ruffcorn said Tuesday that "HHSC is moving aggressively" to boost staffing "to reduce the number of SNAP applications in the queue." That includes moving 250 staffers from other tasks to help process applications for food stamps and other benefits; and over the next five months, 600 newer staffers will get training in processing Medicaid applications, Ruffcorn said.

Abbott spokesman Andrew Mahaleris pointed to the same measures and said “HHSC expects these actions will cut the backlog by half by the end of December.”

Still, where was this urgency months ago? Or even years ago? The Congressional Democrats’ letter to the USDA notes that Texas hasn’t met the 30-day mark for processing all food stamp applications since July 2021 — well before the massive review of Medicaid recipients supercharged the backlog.

I should emphasize: Food stamp recipients are required to work, unless they are elderly, disabled or caring for children. Nearly 80% of Texas food stamp recipients are in families with children. Often those parents are working two or three jobs, Ramirez noted.

At the same time, Texas ranks second in the nation (behind Arkansas) for the highest percentage of residents who lack reliable access to food, according to a USDA report released last month. One in seven Texas households reported they couldn’t always get the healthy, affordable food they need.

State government can’t single-handedly solve hunger, but administering food stamps in a timely way would be a huge help.

Food banks and other charities are working to help as many families as they can. A couple of miles south of the Capitol, the food pantry at St. Ignatius hands out about 2,000 pounds of food a day, three days a week, relying on provisions from the Central Texas Food Bank, area restaurants and church donors.

“Those four hours (a day), it's just a constant, constant, constant filling boxes as full as we can, to give to people and help them through the week,” said Deacon Richard Tucker, who runs the church’s food pantry.

He has seen a sizable increase in need this year, although Tucker can’t say whether it’s related to food stamp delays or something else. The church doesn’t ask people about their hardships. They simply offer help — and pray for the day when it’s no longer needed.

Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.

How to help or get help

If you need assistance: Call 211, or toll-free 1-877-541-7905, to access the 24-hour hotline that provides referrals to state and local resources for food, housing and other types of assistance.

If you want to help others:

  • Central Texas Food Bank works with about 300 partner agencies in 21 Central Texas counties to serve families at soup kitchens, food pantries, after-school programs and other sites. Visit centraltexasfoodbank.org for information on donating or volunteering.

  • Catholic Charities of Central Texas provides aid to anyone in need, regardless of background or creed, often helping with utilities, rent or other bills to free up money in a family’s budget for groceries. Visit ccctx.org for information on donating or volunteering.

  • Austin Utilities’ “Gift of Comfort” program allows people to help pay someone else’s utility bill, freeing up money in their budget for food or other necessities. You can direct your payment to help a specific customer (name and address needed), or you can provide a general donation to help anyone in need. Visit tinyurl.com/GiftofComfort.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Thousands of Texans wait months for new food stamp benefits