HILO — Just outside the Department of Human Service’s South Hilo unit, about a dozen people waited Wednesday morning.
Some sat in seats, others on the floor. Some filled out applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, as others paced and waited for their numbers to be called.
A woman enters.
“You all waiting to go in here?” she asked the group. “The government. Try not to pay your taxes. See how fast they move.”
There are quiet chuckles from the crowd.
The future availability of SNAP benefits could be in jeopardy if a federal government shutdown, now in its third week, continues.
When funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, expired Dec. 21, SNAP benefits for January were already funded. The USDA announced earlier this week that funding would be available in February.
According to a news release, USDA will work with states to issue February benefits earlier than usual, relying on a provision of the last Continuing Resolution, which expired Dec. 21, that provides an appropriation for programs such as SNAP and child nutrition to incur costs of operation within 30 days of the resolution’s expiration.
States will have until Jan. 20 to request and implement the early funds. Once those are issued, the February benefits will be made available to SNAP participants.
The USDA release made no mention of funding beyond February should the shutdown continue.
One man, who did not give his name, said Wednesday outside the DHS South Hilo unit that he would be affected “pretty severely” if the program was not to be funded. The benefits are “pretty important. (It) helps me survive.”
Blue Nelson, 20, of Pahoa was applying for assistance of her own Wednesday.
She had heard rumors that SNAP benefits could be jeopardized by the shutdown, and while it’s not a big concern for her, “definitely it has been a concern for a lot of the community. I have heard a lot of anxiety about the situation.”
“SNAP provides an important benefit for individuals and families by giving them access to food and nutrition,” said Ke‘opu Reelitz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, in an emailed statement. “Our federal partners recently issued information and guidance regarding February SNAP benefits during the government shutdown. The Hawaii Department of Human Services is working on putting this guidance into action to maintain benefits through February. We will provide clients with additional information about their February benefits in the coming days.
“In the meantime, we want to assure Hawaii residents that our priority is making sure clients receive their benefits uninterrupted and keep food on their tables throughout the shutdown. We encourage any clients with questions to contact their processing center.”
More than 40,000 people on the Big Island received SNAP benefits each month last year.
The number of SNAP recipients on the island increased last year after several years of decline, according to data provided by DHS.
In November, 42,269 people on Hawaii Island benefited from the program, about 21.13 percent of the island’s nearly 200,000 residents, compared to 37,964 during the same month in 2017.
Between $10.3 million and $10.6 million in SNAP funds were distributed on the Big Island each month through November in 2018, serving between 42,269 and 43,497 people monthly, according to the provided information.
Statewide, more than $428 million in benefits were distributed from January through November last year.
Reelitz said that as the year just ended, an analysis has yet to be done to determine the reasons behind any increases or decreases in participation numbers. There are, however, common factors to fluctuations, she said, such as the state of the economy, policy changes and natural disasters.
These are “some things we could say probably have an effect,” but factors officials can’t definitively say impact the numbers.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.