Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Food Stamp Application #5,000: A Bittersweet Milestone

This past November, Just Harvest observed a bittersweet milestone. We completed our 5,000th food stamp application since our contract with the Department of Public Welfare began in 2007, illustrating the continuing need as more and more county residents turn to public assistance in the throes of the stagnating economy.

Just Harvest’s contract with the Department of Public Welfare charges us to complete 500 applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known - but still referred to around our office - as food stamps) per year; for the past two years, we have completed over three times that amount.  Over 165,000 people in Allegheny County participate in the food stamp program, and recent figures from the USDA place nationwide participation at nearly 46.5 million.

Co-Director Ken Regal told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “It’s a sad day when we ‘celebrate’ Just Harvest’s 5,000th food stamp application. This number sends a powerful message to those who are cutting budgets, stereotyping poor people, and putting new bureaucratic barriers in the way of people who are just trying to keep food on the table.”

So how did we (and how do we continue to) do it?

Just Harvest's food stamp specialists respond to 40-plus inquiries per week that we receive from people in need. Once a potential client contacts us, a specialist conducts a preliminary screening right over the phone to evaluate whether the household is likely to be eligible, and if so, calculates a rough estimate of the benefits they might receive. We ask questions about income, family size, and some key expenses like rent and utility payments to help us make an estimate.

The client may then apply over the phone with the help of the specialist, who submits the application via the Department of Public Welfare’s COMPASS website. Once the initial online application is submitted, our specialist creates an informational packet for the client, including documents that must be signed and returned to DPW, an explanation of how DPW works, and what the next steps are in the process – typically a phone interview with a caseworker.

In order to ensure that the process is moving along, we keep tabs on open cases through a series of follow-up calls with the client at 10-, 20- and 30-day intervals. The aim of the calls is to both troubleshoot along the way and to make sure that the client has submitted all their documents, has completed a DPW interview, and – after 30 days – to verify whether he or she has received a determination from DPW. In case of problems, we work with clients on a case-by-case basis to first help them to resolve the issue, stepping in with DPW staff when necessary.

Sometimes – through no fault of the client’s – it can be a challenge to get from start to finish, but our services have earned us solidly positive customer satisfaction reviews. “Most people are very pleased at how easy we make the process,” says former Food Stamp Specialist (now Volunteer Coordinator) Ann Sanders. “We know what questions to ask that are specific to the program, and can help them to get through an otherwise cumbersome and long application.”

* (This blog post was originally a newsletter article that went unused in our last issue - we've published it here since it's still interesting news!)