The state will be offering food assistance to even more people, following a decision by the Hawaii Department of Human Services to increase the income eligibility limit.

The income limit for families qualifying for the state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will rise from 185 percent to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), the maximum allowable under federal guidelines. This is expected to mean an extra $65 million in food assistance to needy families, according to the Department of Human Services. The state will also eliminate the household assets test, a way to determine the severity of need outside of the interview process. This means that eligibility will be based solely on income and not on assets. Changes are scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.

Under old eligibility guidelines of 185 percent of poverty level, a family of four could make no more than $46,916 a year. Now, under the 200-percent level, families of four can make up to $50,720 and still qualify for nutrition assistance. A single person earning up to $24,936 will be eligible under the new guidelines. The maximum allotment for a family of four is $1,046 and for a single person, $314.

Families who are exiting welfare assistance due to increased income will also be supported in the transition by receiving five months of SNAP benefits,

“It has been my goal for many years in the program to maximize the opportunity for Hawaii residents to get this financial aid, in order for them to get nutritious food,” says Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Human Services. “This nutrition will be available for many more thousands of people in our state if we increase the eligibility and make these changes so that more people can qualify.”

Koller also expects that the program could be an economic boon for Hawaii, because residents will spend the money in grocery stores, and help lift the burden on nonprofit food organizations. The current recession has called on nonprofits to boost food assistance to the needy. The federal government will provide the full $65 million in food assistance and will split any associated administrative costs with the state. The state will not be required to pay anything more.

“It will allow more people to be eligible to receive nutrition assistance. But just as important, we are still in this economic downturn, and we have not fully recovered.” Koller said. “So it’s also economic stimulus because when more people get this federal benefit — which is cash assistance to buy food — they spend it on the grocery store and other food outlets. What it does is help these grocery stores, and it relieves pressure on food pantries and other nonprofits.”

It is a state — not federal — decision to raise eligibility to the maximum 200 percent, but the Human Services Department had to first make sure that its employees could handle the influx of new people needing help. Last year, while the eligibility level was still at 185 percent, the department found itself with a backlog of applications and could not have handled more without risking penalties from the federal government for late applications.

The department, however, is embarking on an ambitious set of changes to the SNAP program to make the process more efficient. Koller has led the department in upgrading its computer system, eliminating the assets test, changing the way applications are processed and preparing to get the word out about the new policy changes — steps she saw as necessary to handle the broader net of eligibility.

“I think we should go to the maximum benefit that the fed allows, and I’m damned if I am not going to do it for those who need nutrition,” said Koller, who will leave office when the administration of Gov. Linda Lingle wraps up at the end of the year. “I’m committed to, before I leave, that this administration will be able to say that we did it.”