After Middle River resident Lydia Moore lost her job at a Baltimore County medical cannabis company in March 2021, she joined the droves of Marylanders in need of food assistance during the pandemic.

The state’s prompt and easy delivery of those monthly benefits, “was a huge help,” Moore said of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. “I was comfortable, and I was not worried about food,” the 25-year-old recalled.

She hoped her SNAP funds would buoy her finances while she worked two jobs and pursued an associate degree in art therapy.

But as she tried to prove she still needed the benefits, Moore became one of hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who were dropped from the state’s food assistance program earlier this year.

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While the state agency responsible for delivering the crucial funds blamed the steep participation decline on people returning to work, outreach workers across the state fielded calls from eligible recipients who had lost their benefits at the hands of agency obstacles.

In Moore’s case, breakdowns in government services prevented her from keeping her benefits: mail arrived after a pivotal deadline; phone calls to the state agency went unanswered; and she missed an interview she didn’t know had been scheduled, she said.

In the meantime, she raced to fill out a second application. The state approved her for emergency funds while she waited for their review, but the money didn’t arrive until months later.

“Everybody needs to eat,” Moore said. “I’m a student. I don’t make very much money ... and it feels like they are so overrun or mismanaged that they can’t handle it.”

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Maryland Department of Human Services spokesperson Katherine Morris said in a statement that confidentiality prevents the agency from speaking about a specific customer and their case.

However, she said the agency “has provided a number of flexible options for Marylanders — customers can get information, apply for DHS programs and services, and check the status of applications at their convenience online, in person at their local Department of Social Services, by calling our Customer Call Center, or by mailing a paper application.”

1 in 4 Marylanders enrolled no longer receiving benefits

Since March, nearly one in four participants in the federally funded SNAP program — formerly known as food stamps — have been cleared from the rolls, according to the most recent state data.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government eased requirements by dropping periodic eligibility check-ins. Every six months, participants are required to prove their eligibility by filling out forms and requested documents, such as proof of address and pay stubs. Waiving these requirements meant newly unemployed Americans received regular food assistance without having to wade through the bureaucracies of their state to prove they still needed help.

But at the end of 2021, the federal government told states to restart the check-ins, and participation around the country declined, including in Maryland.

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However, as Maryland’s human services department resumed eligibility requirements, the subsequent 21% drop in year-over-year participation was the biggest decline in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 239,000 participants dropped from the program between March and July, the period of sharpest reduction.

Not everyone attributed Maryland’s steep drop to people going back to work. SNAP outreach workers, who contract with the state to help people apply for food benefits, said they heard stories like Moore’s. Some recipients were told they missed an interview they never knew they had. Others who were notified of a scheduled interview would wait for a phone call that never came. People who reached out to the agency for help stayed on hold for hours. Spanish speakers received letters written in English, and some reported a lack of interpreters.

Red tape tangle

Moore experienced many of these stumbling blocks firsthand.

As soon as Moore received a July letter from the state telling her to complete her eligibility paperwork, she went online and did as asked that same day.

She had heard of friends who had lost their benefits and didn’t want that to be her story.

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“I was incredibly anxious,” she said.

One month later, on Aug. 18, she said she received another letter from the state asking her for more paperwork, but the due date they set had already passed. Even though she thought she had done everything right the first time, she sent everything in again the same day she got the letter.

The state closed her case the next week. But she would be the last to know, because she didn’t get the letter telling her so until the middle of September. “And that’s when I think the phone lines were particularly bad,” Moore recalled.

When she called the helpline to file an appeal, her right under state law, the phone lines were jammed.

In the meantime, she still had to eat. She reapplied for benefits, shopped the clearance racks at the grocery store and went to food banks. But the lines were long, and the hours clashed with her work schedule.

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“I can’t wait two hours. I have to go back to work,” she said.

Months passed. She said she didn’t receive any benefits, no messages hit her online account and no letters arrived in her mailbox.

Then, on Dec. 1, the state sent an online notice containing mixed news. They had approved her emergency food benefits for part of September and October. But she hadn’t received any money from the state in months.

And there was also this: Her September application was denied. Why? Because she had missed an interview — an interview the state first told her about on the same day they denied her benefits.

”I had not heard about [the interview] until they said that I missed it,” Moore said, recalling that she received one phone call that day at 1 p.m. from a private number that didn’t leave a message.

The following day, $376 hit her account, the same amount approved for September and October that she had never received.

She’s been calling the helpline once a week to reschedule the “missed” interview.

“I don’t really have a choice except to do what they ask,” she said. In the meantime, she’s going to juggle her budget to balance paying for food and rent, she said.

“I guess I could fill out another application,” she said, “but that doesn’t seem to be a logical choice.”

Moore compared the ordeal to “being told that you’re not playing the game right [but] with no rules.”

Morris, the state human services agency spokeswoman, said in a statement that the agency tries to correct paperwork issues.

“If for any reason a customer submits paperwork that cannot be opened or is illegible,” Morris wrote, “the Department will make numerous attempts to reach the customer to let them know what is needed and provide guidance on how to provide that paperwork in a manner that works best for that customer and their schedule.”

To handle a spike in call volume, the human services department since September has added 64 new call center employees, which the agency said has reduced average call wait times.

But Moore said she never received any notice from the agency saying her documents were illegible or could not be opened.

“How easy of a fix would that have been?” she asked.

As for making the application flexible: “Flexible to who?” Moore asked.

“If you need to go in person, they’re only open for certain hours, and the offices that you’re assigned to change pretty often it seems.” Moore said, noting her office is in Towson and has changed twice already.

”The interview is at their scheduling. You don’t even have any input in that. So I wouldn’t call that flexible at all,” the former SNAP recipient said. “If you can’t go in person, and you need to call, you can only call from working hours, like nine to five, and they don’t answer.”

She said she has called at least once a week since September, including as recently as last week, and still has not spoken to a person at the agency.