The Ministry of Social Development says a letter sent to a Work and Income (WINZ) client telling them food was "not an essential need" should not have been sent.
The letter was sent to a Lower Hutt beneficiary earlier this month after she applied for a $20 food grant, all the money she had going on a vet bill.
Grace - not her real name - called WINZ earlier this month but was declined, the operator telling her she'd spent the last two grants on vet bills rather than food.
But then she got a letter confirming the decision, which cited a different reason altogether. It said WINZ wanted "to give you all the support we can but unfortunately, you don't qualify for a payment for this/these things: Food because [it’s] Not an essential need".
"I wasn't pissed off that she had declined me," Grace told Newshub. "It wasn't about being declined - it was the content of the letter. I was really shocked actually because I thought, what do you mean it's not an essential need?"
After receiving the letter, her first thought was to go into WINZ and "bitch about it", but instead put it on social media.
Newshub supplied a copy of the letter to the Ministry of Social Development, which acknowledged a mistake had been made.
"We regard food as an essential cost, which is why people can apply for food costs to be covered by emergency special needs grants, which people usually do not have to pay back," said Kay Read, group general manager of client service delivery.
"The letter... appears to have been auto-generated after a food grant application was declined and the wrong item from a drop-down menu was selected. The letter was wrong and should not have been sent.
"Our policy is clear: food should never be classified as 'not essential'."
Grace said knowing it was a mistake didn't make her feel any better, because she still needs the money. She's on the Supported Living Payment, and is unable to work for health reasons.
As the threat of COVID-19 loomed in March last year, the Government announced a permanent increase of $25 to all core benefits - a welcome move for those struggling, but well below the recommendations made by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group.
"I didn't see a cent of that because it goes on your basic benefit... therefore I lost $25 on my disability [allowance]," said Grace. "I wasn't any better off."
Even moving to a cheaper rental didn't help - the savings coming off her accommodation benefit.
"You can never better yourself, if you know what I mean? You just live. I'm really grateful - I've lived in other countries that don't have benefit systems so I'm extremely grateful. It would just be nice to not feel like I'm begging for food."
Read said anyone in urgent need of food should get in touch.
"In the year to March 2021 we granted $164m in hardship grants for food. Only a small percentage of applications for food grants are declined."
Grace applied again last week - again, for just $20. This time it was accepted.