LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — Tiesa Hollaway surveys the shelves.
The food pantry at Hill Country Community Ministries has fresh fruits and vegetables, a variety of breads, milk and canned goods.
Hollaway quickly walks through the small space — 900 square feet — smiling at a handful of volunteers who are preparing for a busy day.
“We are so grateful,” Hollaway said. “Our shelves are full. I know that there are a lot of food pantries, whether it’s ours or anyone all over Central Texas, that are struggling, a lot of the food pantries are struggling.”
Hollaway is familiar with that struggle. Just last month she said she had to write a check for $10,000 to buy food just to keep up with the growing need.
“We served over 91,000 people last year,” she explained. “We’re seeing a 49% increase in new families in May — just this month, we’re not even done with May yet — and we’ve already seen 74 brand new families.”
Pandemic benefits cut
Hollaway explained the need is growing because families are continuing to deal with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP application delays and recent pandemic benefits ended.
In March, the federal government cut the amount families received which has meant a reduction of at least $95 a month.
“We’re having to figure out where are we going to get food. We’re having to figure out, are we going to have to reduce the amount of food because we don’t have enough food for everybody that’s coming in as well? How do we get that food? Hollaway said. “The last few months we’ve ran out of you know, we ran out of spaghetti sauce, we ran out of mac and cheese, we’ve ran out of dry foods.”
A spokesperson with Texas Health and Human Services Commission which oversees SNAP, said as of late May more than 79,356 applications are waiting to be processed. Last year around the same time frame, HHSC told KXAN investigators 258,000 applications were pending processing.
The spokesperson added that over the last year, 65% of applications were processed within 30 days which is within the federal time standard. The state said on average SNAP applications exceed the 30-day standard by 17 days.
The state agency explained HHSC has made significant efforts to expand hiring and improve retention.
“HHSC has experienced a net gain of 955 eligibility advisors between April 2022 and March 2023. These positions are responsible for processing applications and renewals for Medicaid, SNAP and other benefits. As of April 6, 2023, the vacancy rate for eligibility advisors was 4%, as compared to a high of 21% in March 2022,” the spokesperson said in an email.
The 211 system was also upgraded in April to include a virtual agent that provides voice response for confirmation of documents, benefit and appointment status.
“In addition to calling 211, individuals may also apply for benefits and check the status of their application at YourTexasBenefits.com to check their benefits or visit a local HHSC office for assistance,” the spokesperson said.
Replacing stolen benefits
On Wednesday, HHSC announced that it received federal approval to replace stolen SNAP benefits for victims of fraud.
“Texas has experienced increased reports of scams, including skimming and cloning – tactics scammers use to obtain Lone Star Card numbers and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) to gain access to SNAP benefits,” said a press release.
The state added that SNAP recipients who are victims of fraud should request a new Lone Star Card and PIN by visiting a local HHSC office and filling out a form or requesting one by mail. Once the claim is reviewed, HHSC will inform the individual by mail within two weeks if they are eligible for replacement benefits. Victims who believe their SNAP benefits were stolen between Oct. 1, 2022, and May 30, 2023, have until Aug. 29, 2023, to request a benefit replacement.
Refunding victims of fraud may be some relief but organizations trying to keep up with the growing need are bracing for the summer months.
Summer gap concerns
“The SNAP reduction of benefits has created quite a gap for our families,” said Monica von Waaden with HopeAustin. “We have seen a vast increase in a very short time in the amount of families of students — approximately 200 extra students we are serving during this time.”
The grassroots nonprofit provides weekend meals to students who lose their subsidized meals offered during the school week. HopeAustin serves more than 4,500 students each week through various food programs in 94 schools across districts within Travis, Williamson and Bastrop Counties.
“HopeAustin does intentionally serve over the summer months because summer does not take a vacation. So therefore, we’re still serving directly to students through the various summer school camps, and summer school programs,” von Waaden said. “We provide snack support — we have many stores on campuses — so we are running the gamut ensuring that students get what they need all through the week, in addition to the weekends.”
Hill Country Community Ministries is also working with school districts to make sure students are getting food in the coming months. In the past, the pantry has been able to offer additional food to families while students are out of school, but this year that might not be a possibility.
“We just don’t have the means — we don’t have the infrastructure. I mean, we’re seeing you know, those 74 new families that came this month, we’re going to have to find room in our schedule to put them in next month,” Hollaway said. “We were talking about we may have to extend hours. We don’t know that yet, but we are always talking — we’re always meeting — we’re always trying to brainstorm how we can serve our community better.”