People wheel their grocery carts with boxes of food to their vehicles to be unloaded at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank in December 2020. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Texas families are waiting more than 100 days to get their SNAP applications reviewed – leaving them months without assistance to feed their families, Texas congressional leaders said in a recent letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More than 142,000 people in El Paso County are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP. The program helps low-income families purchase food and non-alcoholic beverages at grocery stores, convenience stores and farmers markets.

A delegation of 13 Democratic members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, urged the USDA to “protect the health and livelihood of our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors,” states the letter obtained by El Paso Matters. The USDA runs SNAP at the federal level, while the Texas Health and Human Services Commission administers the program at the state level.

Whistleblowers working for the state told the delegation that delays are likely to exceed 200 days by the end of the year, according to the letter. Federal law requires states to process SNAP applications and recertifications and issue benefits to those eligible within 30 days.

Texas Health and Human Services officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the delays, with spokesman José Andrés Araiza saying the agency needed more time to respond.

In September, Texas processed 78% of SNAP applications and 65% of recertifications in a timely manner, according to data published by Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The USDA considers a timeliness rate of 95% or higher to be an acceptable performance.

“These families require immediate assistance, yet they are left in limbo for months as parents struggle to figure out how they will feed their children and are forced to make difficult tradeoffs between paying rent, utility bills, gas, and more,” reads the letter.

Starting Oct. 1, USDA Food and Service Nutrition is implementing updated escalation procedures for state agencies that fall below the acceptable performance. Procedures include technical assistance and improvement benchmarks.

Eddie Lopez, a volunteer at the Kelly Center for Hunger Relief, waits with an armful of food as a vehicle approaches. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The backlog in applications also puts a strain on organizations that address food insecurity.

April Rosales, social services site manager at El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, said the nonprofit receives a high volume of calls from people who are checking on the status of their SNAP applications.

Every month, the food bank receives around 150 SNAP inquiries, in addition to filling out 300 new applications and recertifications, Rosales said.

The food bank helps mostly those with emergency cases – such as people whose income is less than their housing costs – fill out expedited SNAP applications, which the state is required to process and issue benefits within seven days.

But the food bank also receives people who filled out their SNAP applications elsewhere, such as their homeless shelter or other nonprofit, and have yet to receive their benefits 30 days later, Rosales said. When benefits are delayed, a team member will call 211, the social service hotline in Texas, to ask an agent to push the application through.

Disclosure: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is a board member for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank. The newsroom’s policy on editorial independence can be found here.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...