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When the state closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, thousands of people were left unemployed and nearly 20% of residents were food insecure, according to a recent study.
One of those people was Anna, a Chelsea resident, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. For the past 15 years she had worked in a flower shop, but lost her job during the shutdown.
Anna applied for unemployment, as well as the Federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, but when unemployment started she was allowed to receive only $ 16 a month.
“It obviously didn’t help me at all,” Anna told Boston.com through an interpreter, as English is not her first language.
There are some barriers that prevent people from enjoying these benefits, according to a study conducted by Project Bread, the Boston Office of Food Access, and the UMass Boston Center for Survey Research.
In Massachusetts, they number 659,340.
Some of the barriers include attitudes towards the program, including stigma or incorrect ideas about who helps SNAP, fears of applying due to immigration status, and a surprising number of eligible people who simply don’t know the program.
The study identified ways to tackle these barriers, including raising awareness, simplifying demand, and increasing the amount of benefits beyond a “livelihood scheme”.
Food insecurity skyrockets during pandemic
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded rapidly in the spring of 2020, the need for food aid skyrocketed, according to Erin McAleer, CEO of Project Bread. She noted that at the height of the business, the organization’s food hotline was receiving seven times its usual call volume. Although it is no longer at peak needs, there are still many more calls than before the pandemic.
“I mean we’ve doubled the size of our FoodSource hotline staff as an example,” she told Boston.com in a recent interview.
The proof is also in the numbers: SNAP registrations in Massachusetts increased by more than 21% between February 2020 and May 2021, according to the study.
While SNAP is “a more complicated program” than some of the other food aid initiatives, McAleer also described the benefits.
“It’s the most effective anti-hunger program, and I think it’s really important because it gives people the purchasing power to buy food,” she said.
Most of the people on SNAP are children, McAleer said. In 2019, children represented 43% of registrants. The second highest demographic group were adults who were neither elderly nor disabled, according to the Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
According to the study, SNAP also has economic benefits. For every $ 1 spent using SNAP benefits, $ 1.70 is created in economic activity.
“It puts money back into communities,” McAleer said.
SNAP also uses existing grocery stores for some anti-hunger programs that involve the transportation of food.
For Anna, receiving SNAP benefits was essential when she lost her job due to COVID-19. She was one of many people to sign up for SNAP for the first time during the crisis.
She always had a job, she said, but the pandemic quickly took her away. Anna also contracted COVID-19.
Anna also has to rely on herself. She lives with one of her adult children, she says, but that’s it. Her husband was deported to Guatemala about a year and a half ago, she said.
“I’ve been alone since,” she said, noting that she is receiving help from a social worker, who has helped her seek treatment for her depression, among other things.
Turning to the food hotline helped Anna get her SNAP application, but for many, just filling out the application is a barrier.
The study interviewed 823 people to ask them about SNAP awareness. He also went to great lengths to show how how a person feels about the program might affect their enrollment. The survey also looked at experiences with the use of SNAP.
Of those surveyed, nearly 80% feared that they would run out of food before they could buy more.
The main obstacle, according to the study, was misinformation. People fear that they will take the benefits away from someone else who needs them more.
This is not true, McAleer said. SNAP does not run out.
“SNAP is meant to grow during economic downturns and to retract when the economy improves,” she said. “It depends on who needs it. This is an eligibility program if you qualify for it. So you are absolutely not taking it away from anyone else.
Another barrier is access to the computer, with 43% of respondents identifying it as something that would prevent them from applying.
Then there is the stigma, with almost 39% of respondents saying they were worried. One of them is the idea that eligible people should get a job instead of applying for food benefits, according to McAleer.
However, she pointed out that children make up the largest percentage of people using it.
As for adults, she said many work, but just don’t make enough money. Some of these eligible workers also don’t apply for SNAP because they think it’s fair to the unemployed.
“I think this particular program has unfortunately been political fodder election after election, and we see how the misconceptions about the program and the false narratives have unfortunately impacted people,” McAleer said. “They’ve made people hungry unnecessarily, so it’s up to all of us to really change the narrative.”
Difficulty completing the application is also a barrier, according to the study.
Then there are the people who just don’t know about it – about 32 percent of respondents said they knew little or nothing about the program.
Considering only the BIPOC respondents, the barriers they identified were slightly different. One of them was immigration status – just over 30 percent of Latino respondents and 38 percent of Asian respondents identified this as a reason for not applying.
Over 38% of Latino respondents and over 55% of Asian respondents also identified the app language as a barrier. The Project Bread food hotline is available in 180 languages.
How to close the gap
The study identified several ways to ensure that more eligible people signed up for SNAP and did not go unnecessarily hungry.
Awareness is key, according to the study.
Other proposed improvements, according to the study, include:
- Facilitate the application and allow organizations that work with food insecure people to provide things such as access to a computer or a hotline, like that of Project Bread.
- Make SNAP benefits accessible to those who are not currently eligible but who face food insecurity. This could include changing eligibility based on income or immigration status.
- Increase the benefits of SNAP beyond providing a “livelihood diet”. This could include carrying out Health incentive program, or HIP, permanent. HIP allows those who use SNAP to buy food from farmers, such as at farmers’ markets or farm stalls.
- Development of a national plan to fight against hunger and food insecurity.
- Make the idea of needing help normal and change the harmful language around it.
- Take a critical look at research and make inclusion a priority.
“I think what we really tried to do in our research report is define specific things that we need to do now, specific things at the federal level, at the state level, by program, because the time is now, ”McAleer said. “We need to address these disparities. So we know there is a gap, which is really important, now how are we going to close it.
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