Counties can now take food assistance requests by phoneby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — In response to a dramatic increase in the number of Minnesotans seeking food assistance, counties will now be allowed to approve requests over the phone.
After increasing by 1 to 2 percent annually over the last decade, the number of people receiving food assistance shot up 30 percent this year. County employees, who previously could only approve requests after an in-person interview, have been overwhelmed by the demand.
The increasing number of applicants drove Minnesota officials to ask the federal government for a waiver, allowing case workers to approve food assistance requests based on phone interviews. Usually people are required to come into county offices for an in-person interview.
Last week, government officials granted the request for Minnesota and several other states.
Becky Goff, 26, is among 176,000 Minnesotans who got help putting food on the table so far this year. Goff, who has four young children, had things on track and was supporting her family until she lost her job as a shift manager at an Arby's restaurant in April.
"Even talking about it now makes me want to cry. I felt very low as a mother I felt like I didn't want my kids to hate me because I couldn't take care of them," she said.
"I was afraid that it would come to a point where I couldn't take care of them and they'd be taken from me."
Her home went into foreclosure and after that, things spiraled downward. The family moved into a shelter. Goff spent hours waiting in Hennepin County's main Minneapolis human services office waiting to even apply for food stamps.
"It was really hard to get my food stamps because they were so overloaded and overwhelmed that they were actually getting irritated by the people who were applying," she said.
Goff's family is eligible for up to $700 a month in assistance, but it took a month for her to receive the card she swipes at grocery stores for food. The long wait was just part of a process that she says made her feel devalued and demeaned.
"When you're on assistance and trying to get the help you need and you don't get it right away when you need it, it can cause a lot of depression, a lot of sadness," she said. "You feel like your kids are going hungry."
Goff isn't the only one overwhelmed by the situation. The people on the other side of the desk at Hennepin County's human services office are struggling too.
The food assistance comes from federal funds distributed by counties, but budget cuts have kept many of those counties from hiring additional workers despite the increase in demand.
Hennepin County's area director for human services and public health, Bill Brumfield, says employees are taking on a lot more work.
"The waiting rooms are very full. They're just packed every day," he said. "And the workers struggle - it's very complicated work and when you have a lobby full of people you need time to see those people, but you also need time to process the work."
Several other states have also been allowed to move to phone interviews. Minnesota will make translation services available in Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and other languages.
Chuck Johnson, state assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services, hopes the change will speed up the process of getting people help.
"Certainly the increased workload on counties as a result of the case load increase was a factor in considering whether we could move to phone interviews for some clients and have that be a more time-efficient way to apply for assistance," he said.