Food stamp use doubles on Big Island


By HUNTER BISHOP

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Pick five Hawaii County residents out of any supermarket checkout line and chances are good that at least one is buying groceries with food stamps.

Use of food stamps in Hawaii County has more than doubled since 2007, according to numbers provided by the state Department of Human Services. Five years ago, 21,378 residents used food stamps to supplement their grocery costs on the Big Island. Today the number is 43,135, with a county population of 186,738.

The five-year growth rate in food stamp use from 2007 to 2011 on the Big Island far outpaced the 6 percent increase in population during the period.

DHS spokeswoman Kayla Rosenfeld said the rising tide of food stamp recipients can be attributed to a lingering recession, more outreach programs that encourage participation in the program, and the easing of qualifications necessary to receive food stamps.

When Hawaii adopted new federal criteria in October 2010, it widened the income eligibility level for applicants from 130 to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. An asset verification test was dropped and every new applicant was given brochures promoting the food stamp program. With the changes, an estimated 97 percent of Hawaii food stamp applicants became categorically eligible for benefits.

Despite increasing eligibility for thousands of Hawaii County residents, however, there was no spike in the rate of increases in 2011 (20 percent) or 2012 (11.4 percent). Year-to-year increases in food stamp use in Hawaii county have remained fairly steady at an average of about 20 percent since 2007. The largest yearly increase was 38 percent in 2009.

A decline in the number of DHS investigators who ferret out food stamp fraud could be another reason for the increase. In 2008, three DHS investigators were assigned to the Big Island. But since June 1, 2009, there has been only one. The state Legislature approved two new investigators for the Big Island this year, however, said Rosenfeld. One will be joining the one already assigned to the Hilo office. The other will be assigned to Kona, where currently there are no DHS investigators.

Rosenfeld said DHS officials are vigilant in the pursuit of fraud and pursue every case possible. In 2010, Hawaii collected about $1.9 million in food stamp overpayments, including $547,000 stemming from fraud. Prosecutors also had six fraud convictions (including deferred acceptance of guilty or no contest pleas) in the fiscal year ending June 30 in Hawaii County; three additional cases were indicted or charged in the Grand Jury process; and six new cases were referred to prosecutors.

“With the widespread use of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, the digital version of the old-fashioned food stamps, anti-fraud efforts are receiving more attention,” Rosenfeld said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program nationally, recently proposed new rules allowing states to seek and investigate recipients who seek replacement cards more than three times within six months.” Hawaii will launch these investigations later this year, she said.

Most food stamp recipients get their funds placed on plastic Electronic Benefit Transfer debit cards which may be used to buy certain food items. Alcohol, pet food, tobacco, soap paper products and other non-food items may not be purchased with food stamps.

DHS also has sped up the time it takes to process applications after being sued in 2010 by the The Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice. A federal court ordered DHS to speed up the time it takes to process applications and now claims that 90 percent of applications are completed within the required 30-day time period. The $413 million federally funded food stamp program, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Food Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves nearly 160,000 residents statewide. The current maximum monthly allotment for a family of four is $1,046.

Email Hunter Bishop at hbishop@hawaiitribune-herald.com.