State agency wants to scrap, rebuild food assistance program system used by 300K SC households

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Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 7:10 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - More than 600,000 South Carolinians rely on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or the food stamp program, to put food on their tables.

But the state agency that oversees this program wants to totally scrap the system that determines who qualifies for this help and that doles out nearly $2 billion in assistance each year.

The Department of Social Services said the computer system is outdated at 34 years old, and it is asking lawmakers for $8.7 million in the next state budget to start rebuilding it, writing in its budget proposal that putting that work off could pose “major risks to the State.”

“Food for 630,000 individuals, those funds would be at risk,” DSS Director of Communications and External Affairs Connelly-Anne Ragley said. “So that is just a small snapshot of the impact that this system would have and the detrimental impact of the system were not operational or for some reason if the system goes down beyond repair.”

Ragley said that risk has been increasing each year, as the computer system is so outdated that newer technicians don’t know how to repair it, and many of the ones who do are in or approaching retirement.

The agency estimates the total cost to replace the system will be between $60 million and $80 million, a cost it attributes to how expansive the system is, as the 300,000-plus households on SNAP and DSS workers need to use it, and because they want to ensure a new system meets federal standards and lasts for years to come.

The federal government can pick up nearly half the cost if the state agrees to put in the rest.

“It is going to be a multi-year approach and making sure that we design and have a system in place that is the right size for the agency but will also allow us to grow in the future,” Ragley said.

Ragley said upgrades will also help South Carolinians who rely on SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.

“It’s going to allow for timely benefits to be distributed. It’s going to allow for eligibility to be determined in a quicker manner,” she said.

DSS is also asking for another $5 million in next year’s budget to extend the Healthy Bucks program.

It encourages SNAP recipients to purchase fresh produce from vendors like farmer’s markets, and the money for it is estimated to run out by next summer. Under the program, if people use $5 in SNAP benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables from eligible vendors, they can receive up to $15 worth of produce. In 2022, a temporary state law regulating the program was amended to increase the incentive limit to $20.

The statewide nonprofit Wholespire, which works to promote healthy communities in South Carolina, hopes state lawmakers will grant that request.

“When our citizens are healthier, it actually costs less money in the long run, so I think anything we can do to provide proper nutrition to our citizens is a good program,” Wholespire Executive Director Meg Stanley said.

The Healthy Bucks program was started almost 10 years ago by now-Senate President Thomas Alexander, R – Oconee, and the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

The nearly $2 million they used to create it came from one-time federal funding that can’t be replenished, according to DSS.

Lawmakers will start taking up budget requests from DSS and other state agencies shortly after their legislative session begins next month.

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