WEST SIDE — A food bank is developing a program to reduce the barriers that make it hard for eligible families to enroll in food stamps and other public benefits.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository is launching the pilot program in North Lawndale, Austin and Englewood. Residents in the three neighborhoods experience high rates of food insecurity, according to census data. But many families eligible for public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are still not enrolled.
The program would partner with local neighborhood groups in the target communities to help understand what is stopping people from enrolling and empower partners to help get more residents signed up, said Claudia Rodriguez, senior manager for public benefits outreach at the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
There are plenty of challenges that stop people from applying for food stamps even when they’re eligible, Rodriguez said. Language barriers, lack of internet access and the stigma surrounding public aid programs can impede people from signing up. But those barriers are often community-specific, so the solutions must also be tailored to the specific needs of a neighborhood, she said.
“We really want to take the time to learn the different barriers people face when it comes to accessing public benefits,” Rodriguez said.
The food bank has closely analyzed enrollment data to figure out which communities and demographics within the target neighborhoods are underutilizing SNAP, the program commonly known as food stamps, Rodriguez said. At least 8,000 families in North Lawndale, Austin and Englewood currently living in poverty are not signed up for food stamps, according to the organization’s analysis.
“There’s only so much you can learn from data, You learn a lot more by meeting with the people who live in those communities,” she said. “We recognize that we’re not the experts on these three communities and that we really have to take the time to listen to the residents.”
Once the local partners for the program are selected, the Greater Chicago Food Depository will work with them to develop a community plan aimed at closing the enrollment gap for food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits. They will also provide training to partners so the local groups will have a process in place to improve outreach and make it easier for residents to enroll.
“Our goal is to empower them to build their capacity so they can offer benefits outreach in their communities,” Rodriguez said.
Food stamps can be a lifeline for families struggling to afford quality meals. And when more eligible families enroll in public benefits programs, they also help support the local economy by bringing public dollars to neighborhood shops and grocery stores. Every dollar in federally-funded food stamps can generate between $1.50 and $1.79 in economic activity by freeing up resources for families to spend elsewhere, according to a recent study by the United States Department of Agriculture.
“SNAP does help the local economy… There is more demand for more goods. Local stores hire more people,” Rodriguez said. “Any time people who are eligible for SNAP are not enrolled for the benefit, we’re leaving money on the table.”
Neighborhood groups and health organizations can learn more about the SNAP pilot program and schedule an information session by emailing Sara Bechtold Medema at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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