PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Target 12 obtained data showing the number of food stamp recipients in Rhode Island has dropped since 2020, despite nationwide demand increasing. The discrepancy is raising questions about access to food assistance and staffing issues at the R.I. Department of Human Services.

Target 12 reported in December that some Rhode Islanders have struggled for months to get access to federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — also called SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

Rafael Martinez, president of Local 2882, a union that represents workers at DHS, said the staffing at the agency is likely behind the long wait.

“It’s been very concerning,” Martinez said. “I lost roughly, since 2019, close to 50 members. So we’re down 50 employees.”

“The department has been slow to backfill those positions,” he added.

Martinez said before the pandemic, people would come into DHS offices and employees would help them fill out the complicated SNAP benefit application within one hour. But for nearly two years now, DHS offices have now been closed for most in-person services.

“The agency is moving toward doing online applications,” he said. “For the population we serve, it’s not really the right avenue to pursue.”

Martinez said with DHS understaffed and people required to call with questions, accessing SNAP benefits has become harder.

But DHS Spokesperson Jose Garcia told Target 12 via email that the agency “continues to serve the needs of the most vulnerable Rhode Island individuals, families and children.”

He added that the call center has 50 employees to “answer phone calls for questions regarding benefits.”

But Martinez said not all of those 50 employees are eligibility technicians, employees who are trained to fill out SNAP benefit applications.

“Right now, the call center has about 28 ETs staffed, who handle the calls for the entire state, which in my opinion is very low,” he said.

(Story continues below)

Target 12 obtained DHS call center data for December, showing their phones rang 82,299 times that month. The call center was open a total of 143 hours in December. That averages out to 575 calls each hour the call center was open.

“An immediate ask, and an immediate necessity, is to boost the call center and boost access to the call center,” said State Sen. Melissa Murray, D-Woonsocket. “If there is a long-term plan for a full reopening, I think that needs to be shared with legislators.”

Murray told Target 12 she’s been hearing from Woonsocket constituents about problems with SNAP benefit access since early December.

(Story continues below)

A Rhode Island Community Food Bank report in November showed that between April 2020 and March 2021, Rhode Islanders enrolled in SNAP dropped by 3%. Yet, during the same period, Rhode Islanders enrolled in Medicaid increased by 11%, and people enrolled in SNAP nationwide increased by more than 5%.

“It’s just shocking the amount of drop-offs in enrollment, and that tells me that access to enrollment is a barrier for obtaining benefits,” Murray said.

Murray said some American Rescue Plan Act funds should go to DHS to increase staffing and help Rhode Island’s most vulnerable get their benefits faster.

“Most people on SNAP are elderly, and of the rest, a majority are children,” she said. “They’re low income. So, these are our most vulnerable residents that are desperately needing our help during a pandemic.” 

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook