Food is perhaps the most basic of human needs, and the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps ensure those needs are met for low-income families throughout the nation. But in Hawaii, families were put at risk of going hungry while waiting months to receive their urgently needed food assistance through SNAP. In 2010, LEJ filed a lawsuit that resulted in dramatic improvements in the processing on SNAP applications in Hawaii, which resulted in the state receiving a $724,000 from the federal government.
The Case: Bohn v. Koller
On November 17, 2010, LEJ and pro bono partner Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing filed a federal lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Human Services (DHS) to correct the Departments ongoing and persistent failure to process in timely manner applications for Hawaiis poorest families who seek Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Defendants failure to process applications in a timely manner meant that thousands of households were waiting for four months and longer before being determined eligible to receive this benefit, leaving federal dollars on the table.
SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, are intended to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in low-income households by providing fully federally-funded benefits to help them purchase food. Participating states are required to comply with federal SNAP requirements, created by the US Department of Agriculture, which administers the program at the federal level. Under those requirements, the Department must process and provide SNAP benefits within 30 days of the filing of applications by eligible applicants.
The lawsuit came amid the economic downturn at a time when more residents of Hawaii were seeking assistance, especially food stamps. The lawsuit requested that the federal court require the state to develop and implement a corrective action plan that would ensure that all SNAP applications are processed and SNAP benefits provided to all eligible individuals within the 30 day time frame required by federal law.
On November 16, 2011, Federal District Court Judge Ezra issued an Order for Preliminary Injunction, mandating the State of Hawaii take immediate action to improve delivery systems and meet federal guidelines for timely processing of food stamp eligibility determinations. As a result of the court order, the State has dramatically improved its processing times and come into compliance with federal requirements. Additionally, the federal government awarded the State of Hawaii with a $724,000 performance bonus in light of its significant improvement.