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Missouri residents file federal lawsuit over state's ‘dysfunctional’ food assistance program

 A shopping cart at Checkers grocery store in Lawrence, Kansas.
Nomin Ujiyediin
KCUR 89.3
A shopping cart at Checkers grocery store in Lawrence, Kansas.

Mary Holmes, a 55-year-old St. Louis resident with cancer and other health challenges, says she has struggled to put food on the table for more than a month.

Holmes relies on food assistance, but she hasn’t been able to get through the state’s call center line to maintain her federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

When she calls to complete the necessary steps, she has ended up on hold for 4 to 7 hours, but she’s never actually been connected with a representative.

“I received a notice that my SNAP Application was denied in February,” Holmes said in a statement. “Not having SNAP has been really hard. I hardly have any food to eat.”

Holmes and another Missourian from Warren County filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Missouri Department of Social Services, alleging that its “dysfunctional” call line and burdensome application process for food assistance violates federal law and their constitutional rights.

Empower Missouri, a grassroots advocacy group, is also a plaintiff in the suit, which was filed by the New York-based National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and Stinson LLP.

They are asking the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri to order DSS to implement a number of procedural changes to bring the state under compliance with federal law. They are also asking for a preliminary injunction to maintain in-person DSS resource centers, particularly to assist those who don’t have access to the internet.

The lawsuit alleges that Holmes’ experience is far from an isolated case, and it cites comments from the DSS’s Facebook page from other SNAP applicants who said the shortest time they waited was four hours.

In order to get SNAP benefits or to be recertified, residents have to go through an interview. When applicants can’t reach a call center representative to complete their interview, their applications are rejected.

In December, 35% of the 57,500 SNAP applications that the state received were rejected. And in September, half were rejected. These percentages were similar in 2020.

“Our clients and their children are not getting the food they desperately need, solely because they cannot reach anyone at our state agency,” said Katherine Holley, staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which serves low-income residents.

There’s no appointments for the interviews, Holley said. The state’s call center will call the applicants at a random time. If applicants miss the call, they have to try and call back and get another interview.

This was the experience of both Holmes and L.V., a resident of Warren County, according to the lawsuit. Oftentimes, Holmes would be the 600-plus caller in the queue, and her phone credits would run out before she could talk to a representative, the suit states.

DSS resources offices officially reopened to the public on May 17, but the lawsuit states that the centers are “merely theoretical” because their hours are “extremely limited.” Less than a third of 141 resource centers listed on DSS’s website are open to the public five days a week, according to the lawsuit. More than half are open three days a week or fewer and none are open past 5 p.m.

Holmes went to a resource center in hopes of completing the necessary interview, but she was told she had to go through the call center – which the lawsuit alleges is something that “frequently” happens when applicants try to get an in-person interview.

The lawsuit seeks to stop any closures of centers and reduction of in-person staffing or hours until the state has an application process in place that doesn’t allegedly violate applicants’ rights under the SNAP Act.

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, Missouri received $3.4 million for administration expenses for the food stamps program, to be used before Oct. 1, 2021. And for the next two fiscal years, Missouri will receive up to $6.2 million to help administer the program.

However, it’s unclear how the state is spending the funds.

The Department of Social Services did not respond to a request for comment.

“Hundreds of thousands of Missourians rely on SNAP to feed their families every month,” said Mallory Rusch, executive director, Empower Missouri. “It is inexcusable that individuals who are struggling to make ends meet face additional barriers enrolling in SNAP because of Missouri’s Department of Social Services.”

Missouri Independentis part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. 

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry for the Missouri Independent.