An email Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew sent her staff to provide guidance on the department’s initiative to put photos on electronic benefit transfer cards emphasizes how it will “strengthen the integrity” of the state’s welfare programs, but makes only a passing reference to it being a voluntary program.

The email obtained by the Portland Press Herald through the state’s Freedom of Access Act was sent on Nov. 24. DHHS received a letter, dated Nov. 20, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service threatening a loss of millions of federal dollars to administer the food stamp program unless the state took steps to make it clear to benefit recipients that photo IDs are voluntary, and not mandatory.

In the Nov. 24 memo sent to all her staff, Mayhew says: “In July, Maine began a statewide effort to place photos on EBT cards. While the program is voluntary, more than 21,000 benefit recipients now have photo EBT cards and just 100 people have declined to have his or her photo added to the card. We are hearing from those we serve that they are pleased with the additional layer of protection that the photo offers.”

Mayhew’s email to her staff was in response to the letter DHHS received from USDA regional administrator Kurt Messner, in which he threatened to cut funding used to administer the program if the state didn’t take corrective action in a number of areas related to its July 1 rollout of the voluntary photo ID program.

First and foremost, Messner wrote, the state needs to better educate benefit recipients that photo IDs are voluntary, not mandatory. He referenced posters from DHHS that seem to indicate recipients must have their photo taken, which is not the case.

He also wrote that the state should no longer require face-to-face interviews with recipients who have not taken part in the photo ID program.

Finally, Messner expressed civil rights concerns about whether the state was taking photos of household members who were not the primary food stamp applicant. This often means parents who apply for benefits for their children. If non-applicants are asked to have their picture taken, Messner said, that could be a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The federal government splits the cost of administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with the state, paying about $8.9 million in 2013, according to The Associated Press.

The state has 45 days from the Nov. 20 letter to respond to the USDA’s concerns.

Mayhew’s memo to her staff goes on to say that the USDA is threatening to cut funding “if we do not comply with a laundry list of conditions.”

“We are in the process of reviewing this letter, but have no intention to halt this program. Photo EBT is just one additional tool that ensures each dollar spent in Maine’s welfare program is spent appropriately by the person or family it was intended to help,” she says in the email. “It is important to note that photos on EBT cards is permissible under federal regulations. In fact, Massachusetts and New York implemented photo EBT before Maine.”

According to Mayhew, food stamp benefits have more than doubled in cost nationally since 2005, from $31 billion to $80 billion. In Maine during the same period, the program has grown from $160 million to $367 million, with enrollment increasing from 153,000 people to 249,000.

Advocates for low-income families also said that food stamp recipients have been receiving letters from the state that give the impression that in order to qualify for benefits, their photo must be on the EBT card.

“The Portland office has begun a mobile photo project at the Portland Career Center that will replace your current card with a new photo EBT card. We encourage you to go to the career center the week of Nov. 17 to Nov. 21 to get your photo taken,” according to one letter sent to a food stamp recipient. “When getting your photo taken, please bring identification with you. Types of identification that you can bring are a driver’s license, state ID, passport, Social Security card or other documents that prove your identity.”

The letter, which was provided to the Portland Press Herald by Preble Street in Portland, was signed by Bethany Hamm, director of the state’s Office of Family Independence, which is part of DHHS.

Donna Yellen, chief program officer for Preble Street, said that since the federal government put the state on notice, there has been no evidence that the state has done anything to clarify its policy.

“We are still hearing from people who are asking, ‘Do we have to have a photograph?'” Yellen said. “It’s still not clear to us how these photos are helping.”

Yellen said in order to use an EBT card, a person must know what the card holder’s personal identification number, or PIN, is. Very often a neighbor or relative will buy groceries for a person who is homebound or elderly and is unable to go to a store to buy food with his EBT card.

In October, Preble Street’s soup kitchen set an all-time record for meals served, 37,000, according to Yellen. She said the state should not be hindering families and individuals who are struggling to put food on their tables.

Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said to her knowledge the state has not taken any steps to make it clear to food stamp recipients that they don’t need a photo EBT card.

“All we’re asking is that the state be honest with people about what they have to do,” she said.

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen could not be reached Monday night about whether the state has made an effort to clarify its policies governing photo EBT cards.