An illustration of a mother looking into an empty refrigerator with children in the background.

Nearly one in five Marylanders participating in a federal food assistance program dropped from the rolls between March and May, according to online Maryland Department of Human Services data.

The sharp decline in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps, happened months after the state in January partially revived federally required eligibility check-ins, also called recertifications or redeterminations, which were paused during the pandemic, and just as food prices soared due to record inflation.

The number of Marylanders receiving SNAP benefits declined by more than 158,000 between March and May — an 18% drop. Typically, enrollment swings are about 1% to 2% each month, according to state data.

Maintaining SNAP benefits requires participants to submit a form and documentation to DHS every six months to report any changes, such as a change in income or a new address. They also must complete an interview with a caseworker annually; often the interviewer is a staff person from a local Department of Social Services office.

Before a SNAP recipient’s recertification is due, the state sends them a packet, which includes a letter telling them they will have a phone interview on a specific date to review their application. DHS can and does deny recertifications and applications because someone did not complete a phone interview.

To ease the distribution of food benefits and help manage the increase in demand during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October of 2020 granted state SNAP programs administrative flexibilities. DHS chose as one flexibility to waive recertification interviews. When the USDA in January lifted the waiver, the state restarted the recertification process, but not the phone interviews. The interview requirement didn’t resume until April 1, according to the state.

But from late January through May, DHS contractors, who receive state funding to help people apply for and maintain SNAP benefits, said they noticed a slew of administrative obstacles stemming from DHS that created challenges for recipients trying to keep their benefits, including phone interview blunders.

Six contractors who spoke to The Baltimore Banner, four of whom spoke on the record, said some participants didn’t get their scheduling letters until after the date of the phone interviews. Others waited for a phone call that never came. Letters in English and a lack of interpreters created additional recertification hurdles for some Spanish-speaking people, according to three of those contractors. Additionally, nonprofit leaders reported that staffing shortages at local DSS offices contributed to a backlog of recertifications and said the state agency was delayed in paying them for their services.

A DHS spokeswoman said the state anticipated the participation drop “because many individuals who sought SNAP assistance at the onset of the pandemic have since returned to work or their personal circumstances changed, it was expected that the SNAP caseload, and thus issuances, would decline when redeterminations resumed.”

“No SNAP cases were closed in Maryland in January and February of 2022 as a result of a recipient not completing the redetermination requirements,” Katherine Morris, DHS communications director, wrote in a statement. “If an individual missed an interview for any reason, they may call their local Department of Social Services or our Customer Call Center before the case closure to reschedule their federally required interview.”

DHS did not respond to questions about reported staffing shortages, delayed contractor payments, the lack of available interpreters, or documents in English being sent to Spanish speakers.

Frontline caseworkers noticed obstacles

Social worker Flor Giusti, who retired in July from a Baltimore City health care clinic, said she had received at least one call a day since the end of January from a SNAP recipient who lost benefits because of the phone interview process.

“I realized some of the phone interviews were scheduled way before the person received the letter,” Giusti said. “And the other thing that I started to notice was that people would say, ‘I did receive the letter on time. I was waiting the whole day. Nobody called me.’”

The clients who received denial letters notifying them their SNAP cases had been closed often had to start the application process over again, Giusti said.

“I feel very frustrated,” she said. “We are talking about very vulnerable populations, who receive very little income and who have now been hit by an increase on food prices that really make it extremely difficult for them to meet their needs.”

More than 1 in 5 participants lose SNAP benefits in Baltimore

Every county in the state and Baltimore City saw at least a 6% drop in SNAP participation from March to May. But more than one in five participants in three of the state’s largest and more racially diverse jurisdictions — Baltimore and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City — lost access to the benefits during that period.

The Maryland Food Bank’s SNAP Outreach Program reported a 400% increase in call volume from March through June compared to the same time last year. Joanna Warner, a food bank spokeswoman, said the team is hearing anecdotes from clients who got rejected for reasons related to the phone interview process.

“We believe this sequence of events may be a reason why people have come to us for help lately,” Warner wrote in an email.

The food bank’s outreach program is collecting data to spot trends. “But in the meantime, we’re doing what we can to further support those who need assistance restoring their benefits ... to help ensure that no one we assist goes without food while awaiting SNAP benefit approval,” Warner wrote.

Lack of interpretation services

Jackie Reyes, a benefits outreach specialist, helps Talbot County’s immigrant population, many who only speak and read Spanish, to apply and recertify for SNAP benefits. Reyes said “most, if not all,” of her clients at the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center receive their interview appointment letters in English.

“So they will come to us asking for us to read [the letters] for them,” she said. “Even though social services should have notes that the client only speaks Spanish.”

Clients can indicate that they require interpretation services in the state’s database, Reyes said.

“There’s an option: ‘What language do you prefer?’ And we always click ‘Spanish.’ And then there’s another option where it says, ‘Do you need an interpreter?’ And we always click ‘Yes,’” she explained.

Reyes noted anecdotes where her clients’ telephonic interviews from January to May lacked adequate interpretation services, but interpreters seem to have become more available since June.

One SNAP contractor, who asked not to have her name published because her organization receives funding from DHS, said reviving the interview process had a “huge detrimental effect” on the vulnerable immigrant population her group serves.

Since she began tracking food benefits denials in March, she said 80% of her non-English-speaking clients have been denied because of the interview process, a lack of understanding from DSS offices on the range of status documentation, or a lack of access to interpretation services.

A 2002 state law “requires state agencies to take reasonable steps to provide equal access to public services for individuals with limited English proficiency,” according to a nonpartisan analysis of the law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also requires agencies receiving federal funding to ensure individuals with limited English proficiency have equal access to government services.

Staffing shortages

Sara Johnson, co-founder and chief operating officer of CASH Campaign of Maryland, a nonprofit that works to increase the financial security of low-to-moderate income individuals and families across the state, said in addition to her team seeing rejections because of receiving interview notices too late or never receiving a call, many of the DSS staff with whom they used to work have recently retired.

“It’s our understanding that most of the local departments are very understaffed,” she said.

Johnson also noted a lack of access to computers and difficulties navigating online databases as added hurdles. The state uses an online government services database, called MD Think, to manage SNAP participation.

“We certainly want the system to work to get people the help when they need it,” she said.

Her group, like other SNAP outreach contractors, gets paid by the state for its work. Johnson said DHS payment this year has been “unusually delayed.” CASH Campaign was just allowed to submit invoices for the first quarter of the fiscal year, which started in October of 2021.

“The state really needs our support because they’re trying to rebuild their workforce,” she said.

“We want to keep doing this work,” Johnson added.

Food insecurity expected to spike

Kassandra Martinchek, a research associate for the Urban Institute who studies food insecurity and food access, said SNAP participation can be affected by policy changes at the federal and state level, or can shrink as more people go back to work.

As it relates to Maryland’s participation dip, Martinchek said, “We do know that recertification periods are a common time that induces churn.”

Churn, or when a family’s SNAP benefits lapse for four months or less because of an administrative snag, costs states money. A three-year Urban Institute study found that in fiscal year 2011, Maryland spent $1.5 million reprocessing the applications of families who lost SNAP because of churn.

Martinchek said she expects food insecurity to rise in the coming months amid record inflation.

“Families that are potentially eligible for SNAP — where all or most of their income is going to necessities like housing, utilities, food, medical expenses — they have less flexibility to shift their household spending,” she said.

Food demand at ‘levels like the beginning of the pandemic’

One Baltimore City food distribution program noticed a spike in demand.

Diane Adams’ heads the food pantry at the Mattie B. Uzzle Outreach Center and typically helps 175 families per week, including seniors, at-risk students and low-income families. “You know people can’t get a hold of people at DSS to get their benefits, and that’s where we can step in immediately to assist,” Adams said.

She said the number of families per week rose to around 250 in May. The demand for food at her organization, she said, has “returned to the levels like the beginning of the pandemic.”

Banner reporter Penelope Blackwell contributed to this story.

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