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Report: Rhode Island facing sharp cuts to food stamps as hunger grows

Congress is proposing cuts that could make it even harder for vulnerable Rhode Islanders to put food on the table, NBC 10 has learned. (MGN)

A new report from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank says one in eight Rhode Island households battles hunger, the highest level in a decade.

With federal cuts to the food stamp program proposed in Congress, local non-profits fear the situation at the state level could get worse.

"That is a terrifying prospect for the Food Bank,” said Andrew Schiff, CEO of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. “We are already near capacity, serving 57,000 people every month."

Schiff said the cuts planned cuts in the 2018 budget proposal from the U.S. House of Representatives would cost Rhode Island an estimated $90 million out of the $280 million the state currently receives in funds for SNAP, better known as food stamps.

Both of Rhode Island’s senators visited the Food Bank’s warehouse in Providence on Monday, saying they would fight the proposed cuts in Congress.

"From my perspective, the real crisis would come if they cut dramatically the SNAP funding in Washington, because even the most efficient system can't deliver zero,” said Sen. Jack Reed.

Congressional Republicans say the budget proposal is aimed at streamlining the SNAP program, while eliminating waste and fraud. But Rhode Island’s senators, both Democrats, said they’re concerned with the working poor, children, elderly and disabled people in the state.

"(It’s) particularly infuriating while [Republicans] are busy eliminating the estate tax, which benefits the top 0.2 percent of American wealthy families, to the tune of billions of dollars,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. “But they're being parsimonious about a little too much bread and milk to poor families?”

Making the situation more dire are the proposed federal cuts following more than a year of delays for people already receiving food stamps because of unresolved computer problems at Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services. Food stamp enrollment has dropped more than 12 percent, even though more people report going without enough food, the report said.

The Food Bank places the blame for that drop squarely on the DHS computer system, known as U-HIP, because the problems continue to make it difficult -- or in some cases impossible -- for people who already qualify to access food stamp benefits.

“We attribute it to UHIP,” Schiff said. “Absolutely."

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island ACLU also had harsh words for DHS on Monday, calling new statistics showing some people waited more than a year for food stamps “jaw-dropping.” The ACLU sued the state on behalf of clients who food stamps were wrongly delayed or terminated, and a federal judge appointed a Special Master to resolve the ongoing problems last month.

Schiff said change is needed at the state level to make sure food stamps are being delivered on time, noting that non-profits like the Food Bank simply can’t absorb the growing demand for food assistance across the state.

"They have to get through that backlog, and they have to restore benefits to people who are unfairly denied,” he said.

Gov. Gina Raimondo put together a turnaround team to fix the computer problems in early 2017. But just last month, state officials learned from the vendor on the project, Deloitte, that close to four thousand additional applications had been lost in the system. That meant those cases went unprocessed, leaving people without crucial benefits, including food stamps.

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