Rose Afriyie knows firsthand what it’s like to be a beneficiary of food programs. Afriyie, who grew up in the Gun Hill public housing projects in the Bronx in the ‘80s, tells SELF that food benefits helped her mother feed her family while attending nursing school. Money that would have otherwise been spent on groceries could go to books, enabling Afriyie’s mom to “unlock economic opportunity for our family,” Afriyie explains. “I think that’s fundamentally what food programs are about: being able to unlock not just food in the near term, but also capital that would otherwise be used on food and can now then be devoted to other [things].”
Today, Afriyie is the cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit mRelief, which helps people access benefits from the nation’s largest food program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). About 40 million people receive SNAP benefits in an average month, according to the USDA. This year, emergency SNAP benefits have helped families experiencing food insecurity survive the pandemic-prompted economic crisis. But major accessibility barriers prevent SNAP from benefiting as many people as it potentially could, and the program is, in several ways, falling short of people’s needs. By mRelief’s estimate, about $13 billion in food stamp benefits go unclaimed every year.
The function of mRelief is, essentially, to supercharge SNAP by increasing the reach and efficiency of the program; according to mRelief, the organization has already unlocked $190 million in SNAP benefits for over 425,000 families over the last decade. But Afriyie and her colleagues are also dedicated to making the experience of seeking and securing SNAP benefits more decent. “The process for signing up for social services historically has been really challenging; it has never really been the most dignified process,” Zareena Meyn, director of partnerships and development at mRelief, tells SELF. “Our mission is to transform access to social services for the inherent dignity of all people.”
Technology is crucial in fulfilling this mission, as it has the potential to both “bring the SNAP enrollment process into the current century, and make the process more dignified,” Meyn explains. The typical process of applying for SNAP to find out if you even qualify varies based on the state agency, but is generally frustrating and time-consuming—requiring, on average, a 20-page application or 90-minute phone call, plus submitting as many as 10 documents, according to mRelief. mRelief offers a digital screening tool and screening via text messaging that make it easier for people to quickly find out if they are eligible for SNAP. If the screening shows that you are likely eligible, the organization will shepherd you through the actual application process. For people already enrolled in SNAP, mRelief is pushing for funding to develop mobile EBT, so that people can rely on a digital backup if they misplace their card. And, in the wake of the pandemic—which has both increased the demand for SNAP and made traditional in-person enrollment assistance impossible—mRelief is lightening the load for the SNAP case workers who are now doing their jobs remotely with a new online platform that streamlines the client enrollment process.
SELF spoke to Afriyie and Meyn about the powerful role of SNAP, the inefficiencies and indignities in the program, and how mRelief is working to maximize the program’s potential and improve the experience of its beneficiaries.
The key thing here is being really data-driven. When we first co-founded mRelief, we had a lot of social services on our site, bolstered by this saying by Audre Lorde that people don’t live single-issue lives. We had dental assistance, rental assistance, all types of programs. But it was really difficult to get a sense of how people fared at the end of the day in all of these social services journeys.
So we ran the analytics to see: What are the top programs that people are actually going to? And with those programs, what is our capacity to make the process a little better, to unlock more resources for people? And SNAP was a really perfect choice because it reflected one, demand, and two, the idea that within 30 days [of you applying for SNAP], the state has a mandate to make sure you get benefits at the maximum level. SNAP is effectively the nation’s greatest food program, in part because of what it’s able to provide.
The Food Research Action Committee quotes that for every single meal that a food pantry provides, the SNAP program provides nine. Food pantries can’t meet the demand for people’s needs in this program, and SNAP can. SNAP also gives people the freedom to go out and buy their own food and feed their families. We are working within the solution that already exists, but are helping to make it more accessible.
There are [millions] of people who live in this country that are eligible for the SNAP program but don’t receive food stamps. One of the biggest reasons is people don’t know they are eligible for this program. It’s hard for a traditional food bank to find these people who are struggling, but don’t know where to look for these resources. So we have search engine marketing to reach these folks who are actively searching for “I need help with food today.” Also, Facebook has allowed us to reach huge populations that maybe didn’t even have the frame of mind to start seeking out assistance.
There are myths from the 1970s and ‘60s, which have persisted to today, that you have to be very, very poor to be eligible—when that’s not necessarily true. You can be working and still be eligible. You can be a student, in some cases, and still be eligible. You can be receiving social security and still be eligible. So you can have different sources of income but it still is recognized that you are entitled to food benefits. And one of the big challenges that surrounds actually getting those benefits is how long the applications can be—sometimes they can be about 18 pages long.
At the beginning of this year we launched screening over text messaging, so you can text the word FOOD to 74544 and find out if you qualify. And our new platform, Johnnie, was born of the pandemic, unfortunately. We saw a huge need for partner agencies, like food banks and other food services agencies, that needed to keep enrolling people for SNAP but couldn’t do so safely from their workplaces, like a food pantry. It’s a super easy-to-use website, especially for people who aren’t necessarily as computer-literate, where people can access their client list, make calls directly from this website, and complete the SNAP application with users over the phone. Some of the case workers have said that it takes them about 50 percent of the time as it did before to enroll people using Johnnie, because it’s really built with the user experience at the center, whereas not all of these state websites are built this way.
We recently did a study of mRelief users over text messaging just to hear a little bit more about what they feel they need in order to have a dignified SNAP enrollment process. When we asked them specifically about the issue of losing or misplacing your card or it getting damaged or destroyed, more than two-thirds said that not having access to their card impacts not only their ability to get food but their sense of self-worth. And beyond that, when we asked people how they were able to afford food during that time, more than 10 percent said that they didn’t eat at all. Others visited food pantries; others were working [or working more] so they were just able to make ends meet. There’s not a stop-gap.
You could lose your card, at any moment. Say, like in one of our users’ stories, you took a cab to a destination and you came up short for the fare, and so the driver took your card as collateral. Or if you’re homeless, and because of COVID-19 policies, they have to hot water-wash everybody’s clothes at the shelter. And if your card accidentally is in your pocket, you can lose your card that way.
The challenge for our users is that in those moments, they have nothing to replace their card with if they lose it. It’s very different from, for example, if you run to the pharmacy without your insurance card— you can still pull it up on your cell phone. Or if, God forbid, you lose your wallet, you can call your bank—several banks will allow you to get your card put on your cell phone. But our clients really have nothing.
We see a huge opportunity, based on some of our research, to really think more deeply about things that can be added to upcoming bills ahead of the next farm bill. One of the great victories in 2018 was that in the farm bill there was a section that authorized mobile EBT.
There has been the minimum effort made—the recognition that mobile EBT is something of the future. However, there’s no [federal] funding that’s been allocated to actually support that work. So if states opted into including a mobile EBT solution, they’re really largely on their own in terms of how they would be able to roll that out.
The idea that mobile EBT could become something that gets further funding so that states can actually be funded to pilot this, especially during a time when many states are experiencing shortfalls, will really allow for this technology to get more research and more experimentation.
And to be clear, what we want is funding for actual in-depth research. We’re still a long way from actually building the literacy that would be needed to have something 100 percent replace plastic cards altogether, but we know that that road can be started on. And this research does deserve funding and resources.
People can call their congressperson and see if they’re willing to develop the infrastructure that’s needed to roll out general technological changes—and specifically, mobile EBT—that bring this SNAP enrollment process into the current century and make the process more dignified. That would be our ask for individuals who maybe don’t know what to do in this moment. That’s a huge, important step.
Yes. People can go to mRelief.com/donate. We’re filling grocery bags and pantries and fridges across the U.S. Heading into the holidays, of course we want to do a lot more than we’ve already done, and we really are asking for support.