Photo: Clarence Carter, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, addressing a Tennessee Senate panel on Jan. 24, 2024. Photo Credit: John Partipilo
By Anita Wadhwani [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
Leaders of the Tennessee Department of Human Services told lawmakers on Wednesday that it could take another two more months before the state’s SNAP program is running smoothly again.
An overhaul of agency software last summer has led to lengthy backlogs in processing requests for the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The program has been beset by glitches, lengthy phone and in-office wait times — advocates have called it “chaos” — that have prevented tens of thousands of Tennessee families from accessing food aid, commonly referred to as “food stamps.”
Some families have been cut off for months at a time without notice despite no change in the circumstances that qualify them for the benefit. SNAP is issued in the form of a debit card loaded monthly with funds that may only be used to purchase food. Most SNAP recipients are children.
Clarence Carter, the agency’s commissioner, told lawmakers that the agency hopes to bring the wait time for processing SNAP applications down to under 60 days by mid-February. By mid-March, the agency hopes to have the wait time down to under 30 days — the turnaround time mandated by the federal government.
“Please know we recognized the vital impact of this program” Carter said. “This program puts food on Tennesseans’ tables. And so we have an almost desperate sense of urgency to be able to do this right.”
This week, Carter said, DHS has taken an “all hands on deck approach” to vetting a backlog of 35,000 SNAP applications, mobilizing 1,400 department employees from other divisions to conduct phone interviews with applicants — the mandated last step before benefits can be approved or denied.
In the first two days of the week-long blitz of phone calls, the agency has conducted 14,500 interviews with applicants seeking SNAP — all of whom have had a new or renewed application pending for more than 30 days.
DHS officials noted that the staff brought in to help are keenly aware of the importance of the work: some department staff rely on food stamps themselves, or have family members who do, said Sherrell Campbell-Street, assistant DHS commissioner.
The department is also in the process of hiring more staff, and has streamlined the 6-month training process to under 5 weeks. The challenge remains reducing a backlog of accumulated applications while the agency continues to receive thousands of new applications every day, Carter said.
“I’m very confident we are heading in the direction that we will fix this problem very very soon,” Carter said.
Sen. Becky Massey, a Knoxville Republican, shared stories of desperate constituents who couldn’t access SNAP, including a family with a disabled child.
Two months to get the system running smoothly again “is too long for people with food insecurity,” Massey said, urging Carter to do anything he could to speed up the process.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, echoed those comments.
“There’s no question everyone recognizes this is a 30-day requirement for a reason,” Yarbro said.
“This is the most basic need for the people who have the greatest need. The fact that there are people that were supposed to have food during the holidays who didn’t have as much as they would otherwise because of an error on our part…I think we all have to do better than that.”