Thursday, March 17, 2011

SNAP Benefits and the San Antonio Food Bank

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) is the main federal program to help feed people with limited income. But nationwide (as of 2008), only about 2/3 of those eligible actually receive SNAP benefits. In some states, the rate is even less.

San Antonio Food Bank
Why are rates low? Reasons include difficulty in filing applications, suspicion of the process (e.g., some states require very long applications and finger imaging), misinformation (such as assumptions that you can’t own a car and also receive benefits), stigma, and a reluctance to admit that you’re having difficulty putting food on the table for your family.

One state that has been working to overcome these impediments and to increase their SNAP rate is Texas. Partly due to the efforts of the San Antonio Food Bank, the rate in the 16 counties they serve has grown from about 1/3 in 2001 to nearly 3/4 today.

Why would a food bank be interested in increasing SNAP participation? As President and CEO Eric Cooper told us, increasing SNAP participation is a win-win-win proposition: 
  • People experiencing food insecurity are better able to put nutritious food on their tables.
  • Food banks and other feeding programs have a smaller draw on their limited resource of private and government donated food – less fund raising and fewer appeals for food drives.
    Eric Cooper, Yvonne Vaughan, Paco Velez
  • Communities experience an economic stimulus because SNAP benefits are spent immediately, providing income for the grocery stores and allowing SNAP recipients to spend other money on bills such as rent and utilities. Each dollar of SNAP benefits creates about $1.80 in economic benefits.  The $9M that SNAP recipients received in 2001 in Bexar County (largest county in the San Antonio Food Bank’s service area) is today over $32M. That’s a pretty large economic stimulus!

But why should a food bank be assisting with SNAP applications? Shouldn’t the state agencies responsible for administering SNAP be doing this work?  Well, states are experiencing tight budgets and are finding it difficult to handle the increases in SNAP applicants, so it’s very helpful to them to off-load some of the process to authorized agencies such as food banks. And food banks are already partnering with many agencies that provide services to the poor (the San Antonio Food Bank has 525 partner agencies), so it’s natural to assist these same individuals with SNAP benefits, too. 
We visited the San Antonio Food Bank to learn how their SNAP outreach program works. There, we interviewed Eric Cooper, as well as Paco Velez, Executive Vice President of Services, Yvonne Vaughan, Director of Client Services, and Nancy Sanchez, Help Center Manager. 
Nancy Sanchez (R) explains Help Center
For the San Antonio Food Bank, outreach is not just a bunch of flyers or advertisements. Instead, the service it provides for SNAP is analogous to the service a tax preparer provides for filing income tax returns – Make the process easy and ensure that each person receives the benefits to which they are entitled.
  • Outreach workers go to schools, medical facilities, corporations, and member agencies to inform school staff, medical professionals, and case workers how to refer potential SNAP recipients to the food bank. Then, these workers ask their clients if they’d like the food bank to help them apply for SNAP benefits. If the client agrees, the workers send the referral directly to the food bank help center, and the help center contacts the client directly to help them apply for SNAP and other benefits. The food bank has found this method much more effective than giving the client a flier and suggesting they call the food bank for assistance.
  • Anyone who calls the food bank for food is not only told where the nearest food pantry is to get immediate help, but is also interviewed and helped to apply for SNAP and other federal benefits such as Medicaid. Usually, the paperwork is filled out on the phone, then sent to the client to sign. They are also told what other information they need (ID, pay stubs, etc.) to bring or mail in to complete the application.
  • Agency Outreach Specialist,
    Seth Villalobos with a SNAP client
  • Outreach workers also may interview clients directly at member agencies, either on a set schedule, or whenever there are several people who need benefits.
  • The food bank has recently been trained and authorized by the state of Texas to perform the required interview of the clients and issue them their Lone Star EBT card (not yet loaded with any benefits) so they don’t have to go to the Health and Human Services office at all.  The food bank DOES NOT determine eligibility for benefits.  Every application is submitted to the state for determination of benefits. When benefits are approved, they are loaded onto the Lone Star Card and the client is notified to activate their card with a phone call.
During our visit, we observed the help center in operation. We saw help staff filling out applications and making follow-up phone calls, all in a very competent, friendly and persuasive manner. Most staff speak both Spanish and English, and there is a three-way interpretation service if needed for other languages. The help staff handle about 6,000 calls per month.  We also observed direct client interactions, both at the food bank and at an outreach center (the Salvation Army Women and Family Shelter).  In two of the three interviews we observed, the interviewer identified additional benefits that the client might be eligible to receive.

All in all, the San Antonio Food Bank processes approximately 3,000 SNAP applications per month, which is likely up to 25% of the total for their 16-county service area.

We hope more organizations take up this sort of SNAP outreach approach and achieve the win-win-win that comes from getting authorized benefits to those in need.

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