While the state works to close lengthy backlog in food aid program, enrollment dropped by 122k

Published 9:48 am Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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By Anita Wadhwani

Tennessee Lookout
Heaven Hollinsworth is only able to work one to day a week, as she balances her job with trying to find a nurse who can help take care of her disabled three-year-old daughter.

The money she makes from her $15 per hour job as home healthcare aide helps bridge the gap between the disability payments she gets for her daughter and her rent – but it doesn’t stretch much further.

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For more than a year, Hollinsworth tried to enroll in Tennessee’s nutrition benefits program – called SNAP benefits and formerly known as food stamps – to help pay for groceries. She applied in late 2022, but has faced one bureaucratic dead end after another.

“I think it’s very important they get on top of this,” Hollinsworth, 23, said last week just after legal advocates intervened to get her and her daughter onto the program.

“There’s nowhere to go and no one to talk to. The wait times are ridiculous. I was stressing out tremendously about something I could not control.

Staffing shortages and glitches with a new computer system has turned Tennessee’s SNAP program, administered by the Department of Human of Services, into a chaotic mess over the past year.

At its peak in November, nearly 50,000 applications were pending – 40% of them stuck in the system for more than a month despite federal rules saying SNAP applications must be processed within 30 days.

In response to questions from the Lookout, officials for the Department of Human Services officials said last week they are making progress in addressing the backlog.

At the end of May, the agency had 22,486 new SNAP applications pending — 851 of them more than 30 days old.

But, once receiving SNAP, individuals must re-submit their proof of income and other paperwork every six months to recertify. As of June 3, the agency had 14,995 recertification applications pending, 145 of them waiting for longer than a month.

“We have returned to a steady state and are excited to serve our customers,” Danielle Cotton, the DHS spokesperson, said via email.

Signe Anderson, senior director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center, said her group continues to see the same steady intake of clients needing help accessing SNAP benefits — including those who have been denied despite meeting income and other qualifications.

Most alarmingly, Anderson noted, Tennessee’s SNAP rolls have notably shrunk since last year.

Individuals enrolled in SNAP have dropped by 15.2% over the past year as more than 122,000 people lost benefits, according to Department of Human Services data tracking enrollees in March each year.

A DHS spokesperson did not respond to a question about the reason for the enrollment decline.


Tennessee Lookout, www.TennesseeLookout.com, is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.