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NBC 10 I-Team: More families visit food banks following SNAP delays

The head of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank said the food bank's local affiliates have seen an increase in first-time visitors in the weeks following the DHS software launch. (WJAR)

While many families enjoyed Thanksgiving leftovers on Friday, more than 1,300 Rhode Island households were waiting for food assistance through the SNAP program, better known as food stamps. The NBC 10 I-Team learned more local families have turned to food pantries in the weeks following the rocky rollout of new software at the state’s Department of Human Services.

That’s stretching resources already in high demand.

A disabled military veteran told the NBC 10 I-Team he’s been waiting for word on food stamp benefits since August. That’s when he sent in paperwork to recertify for the program he’s depended on for years. But Thanksgiving came and went, and he was still waiting.

"Government is supposed to work for the people, by the people, not for themselves,” the man said. “They just don’t care,” he said of state officials.

SNAP benefits are the primary source of food for at least 100,000 Rhode Island households. When those benefits are delayed, families must find another source for meals and local non-profits scramble to pick up the slack.

"There are people who are in dire need. We want to make sure that the state is responding,” said Rhode Island Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff.

Schiff said the food bank’s local affiliates have seen an increase in first-time visitors in the weeks following the DHS software launch. Families who come to food pantries generally aren’t asked why they need help, but Schiff said the DHS delays are causing concern.

"We just know that there's been a big increase in new people, people who never needed food assistance before, coming for help. Why they're coming for help right now? It may have to do with that,” Schiff said.

Schiff said the food bank is already at capacity, serving 59,000 Rhode Islanders through 160 member agencies across the state.

The 1,365 pending SNAP cases are part of a backlog of more than 10,000 total cases at DHS, involving programs like health care, child care subsidies and cash assistance. Gov. Gina Raimondo addressed the ongoing computer glitches and backlog of cases on NBC 10’s exclusive "Connect to the Capitol" segment Wednesday.

"It feels a little like whack-a-mole. We fix one problem and another one comes up,” Raimondo said. “All I can tell you is, I have more people working on it than ever before."

The stakes got higher earlier this month, when regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture put Rhode Island’s DHS on notice with a written warning letter. The DHS now must fix the SNAP delays or face losing some $13 million in federal funding.

The department submitted a corrective action plan to the USDA on Tuesday, and state leaders insist they won’t lose any funding. They promise the backlog of cases will be cleared by the new year.

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