FoodStamps

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So many people tried to apply for emergency food stamps on the first day that the agency's phone system simply couldn't handle the volume Monday. 

“We knew it was going to be a lot, but no way did we anticipate that we were going to be receiving 250 to 350 calls per second. But that’s what we have been receiving,” said Shavana Howard, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services assistant secretary for family support, who is overseeing the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program roll out. “We thought there was a server problem this morning. But it has to do with this massive call volume.”

Last week, Howard was hoping that many of the families who suffered damages from Hurricane Ida would overcome reticence and apply for benefits usually targeted for low-income households. That doesn't appear to be an issue any more.

She had estimated that maybe 150,000 households would want to sign up temporarily for food stamps when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as it did last week, changed the income rules to allow access to many families who under normal circumstances make too much money to qualify. That estimate was based on past experiences. Howard said Monday she recalculated the approximation to about 185,000 households.

USDA approves D-SNAP benefits for 25 Louisiana parishes impacted by Ida. Here's how to apply.

Food stamp qualification rules are temporarily changed to include storm-related damages as part of income calculations, which could allow many households — even those with six-figure incomes — to receive groceries — about $680 worth for a family of four. People already receiving regular food stamps can’t apply.

DCFS can take up to 1,500 calls before the caller receives a busy signal. About 700 staffers are on hand to answer the calls and to question the applicants. Those callers who did make it through Monday sat on line for about an hour before being interviewed. Most weren't even allowed to queue for the wait. The system was set up to have a 10-minute wait time for a staffer.

“We apologize for the inconvenience. We have addressed the issue, and calls are now flowing. We are sending mass texts to clients scheduled for this first week,” DCFS posted on its Facebook page about 11 a.m.

Applicants have to phone the agency — at (888) 524-3578 — and be interviewed by staff between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Applicants will be asked about income, checking and savings account balances and other financial assets, as well as about a wide range of costs caused by the storm. The interview takes about 22 minutes to complete. Most applicants will learn immediately if they qualify and for how much. 

Hoping for a smooth application process, DCFS set up a schedule that allows applicants from specific parishes to phone during specified times. Actually, applicants have three days to phone in to apply: The scheduled day for last names that begin with specific letters, then two additional days for people to phone in from those parishes regardless of the letter with which their last name begins.

Howard said a number of the callers didn't follow the schedule and phoned in Monday, the first day of the three-week application period, even though it wasn't their day. Those who made it through but weren't scheduled for intake on Monday were told to call back when it was their turn, she said.

The agency had scheduled Monday to take applications from people the last names starting with the letters A-F and living in East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberia, Orleans, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, Washington, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes. On Tuesday, residents of those parishes with last names beginning G-M can call. Wednesday is for last names N-S and Thursday is T-Z.

For the applicants on this first day of Phase 1, DCFS extended the call-in time Monday to 7:30 p.m. Applicants in all three phases can also phone on Friday and Saturday, regardless of their last name, provided they are living one of the parishes in that particular phase.

PHASE 2 – Sept. 27 to Oct. 2

Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, Jefferson, Livingston, Plaquemines, St. Helena, St. Martin (lower St. Martin Parish ZIPs only 70339 and 70380), St. Mary and Tangipahoa parishes.

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Day 1 (Monday, Sept. 27) — Residents with last names beginning with A-F

Day 2 (Tuesday, Sept. 28) — G-M

Day 3 (Wednesday, Sept. 29) — N-S

Day 4 (Thursday, Sept. 30) — T-Z

Day 5 (Friday, Oct. 1) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 2 parishes

Day 6 (Saturday, Oct. 2) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 2 parishes

PHASE 3 – Oct. 4-9

Lafourche, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Terrebonne parishes.

Day 1 (Monday, Oct. 4) — Residents with last names beginning with A-F

Day 2 (Tuesday, Oct. 5) — G-M

Day 3 (Wednesday, Oct. 6) — N-S

Day 4 (Thursday, Oct. 7) — T-Z

Day 5 (Friday, Oct. 8) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 3 parishes

Day 6 (Saturday, Oct. 9) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 3 parishes

Additional information about the emergency food stamps can be found by texting LADSNAP to 898-211 or by visiting www.dcfs.la.gov/DSNAP. Translation services are available for people whose primary language is not English.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.