The letter made James Shrode shake.
It was mailed to the Center City resident, who lives on disability payments, from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. He was ordered to set up an interview about a perceived problem with his food stamps, now known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The March 16 letter, partially in upper-case letters, read: “IF YOU DO NOT CALL ME TO CONDUCT THE INTERVIEW ... you may lose benefits for you and your family.”
Shrode, 57, who suffers from post-traumatic stress and depression, and is recovering from a 27-day bout with COVID-19, said, “It was a very adversarial tone, but that’s how DHS treats you.
“This is a very scary time for a lot of people. I couldn’t sleep the night before I had to make the phone call. I was so nervous and worried.”
What was Shrode’s infraction? DHS was implying that he no longer lived in Pennsylvania, and that he was using his Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) SNAP card to make several Instacart purchases over a period of 90 days at an Aldi’s supermarket outside the state — in Batavia, Ill., to be exact. DHS demanded that Shrode prove his Pennsylvania residency.
The thing is, he’d used his card to buy food exclusively at an Aldi’s near his home.
So, what was going on?
It turns out Batavia is the corporate headquarters of Aldi’s.
“That’s what’s causing the issue,” said Cathy Buhrig, director of the Bureau of Policy in the office of Income Maintenance at DHS in Harrisburg. “Many national retailers have a central billing location often not in the state.” DHS computers had been reading Aldi purchases as being from that central location.
When Shrode spoke to a DHS representative on March 25, she told him that other SNAP recipients had complained of similar problems.
Advocates for low-income people concur.
Ann Sanders, public policy advocate for Just Harvest, an anti-hunger agency in Pittsburgh, said she has a client who was contacted by DHS in a manner similar to Shrode’s.
“We had a woman reach out to us, who received an accusatory letter,” Sanders said. “It said, ‘We need to verify you live in Pennsylvania because you have been making online purchases out of state.’ But she’d not left Pennsylvania.”
Nevertheless, the woman’s EBT card registered that she’d been buying food in Bentonville, Ark., for a period of time. That’s the national headquarters of the woman’s local food store, Walmart.
Advocates say similar problems have occurred when EBT holders use SNAP benefits to buy food from Amazon, which has shown up on DHS computers as purchases made in Seattle, Amazon’s headquarters.
“I am very sorry this happened,” said DHS Secretary Teresa Miller in an interview. “And it breaks my heart to hear about ... [Shrode’s’] reaction and hurt and pain.”
Miller said the letters were an “unintended consequence” triggered by bugs in a relatively new system, now being fixed. She said her agency would be sure to “filter out” the addresses of retailers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issues SNAP benefits, created a pilot system last summer allowing SNAP recipients to order groceries online for the first time. In this area, participants include ShopRite, Fresh Grocer, Amazon, and Walmart, a DHS spokesperson said. In December, Aldi was added. Shoppers have used Instacart for Aldi purchases, the spokesperson said.
Asked how many people have received such letters, a DHS spokesperson said that since December, “879 cases were flagged for out-of-state use related to food retailers approved through the online purchasing pilot.” The spokesperson said DHS had not tabulated pre-December cases.
When a case is flagged, it’s sent to a local county assistance office for caseworkers to review. The spokesperson continued, “That review may result in a letter being sent, but individual client records do not reflect if a letter was sent. Because of this, we do not have an exact record of how many letters we sent.”
It is legal for people to use SNAP benefits outside their home states, according to the USDA. But, advocates said, DHS looks for people who’ve moved out of Pennsylvania to be sure they’re no longer receiving their benefits from the state.
Sanders said she met with DHS officials earlier this week to discuss the letters — not just their content, but their tone.
“I told them to reconsider that tone,” she said. “I told them it’s very disturbing. They basically agreed people shouldn’t be getting letters that are terrifying.”
Sanders said officials told her the template for the letters had been unchanged since 2013. At that time, Gary Alexander was in charge of what was then known as the Department of Public Welfare in the Corbett administration.
A controversial figure, Alexander was criticized as being tough and overbearing by advocates. He was bent on ferreting out “waste, fraud, and abuse” from the SNAP program, which traditionally has had little of any, especially from clients, advocates say.
He also instituted an asset test, making the amount of food stamps people can receive contingent on the assets they possess. The Wolf administration ended it.
Alexander’s agency was the subject of an Obama administration query for dropping high numbers of children off Medicaid rolls.
And he raised eyebrows for instituting dress codes for executive-level women — no longer in effect ― that included a ban on open-toed shoes and a requirement of nylon stockings or tights, even in summer.
Aware that her agency’s SNAP letters derived from that era, Miller acknowledged: “The letter’s tone is not what we want to have going out to recipients. We will revisit the letters from a tone perspective.”