Close the SNAP Gap: Read our testimony

Project Bread

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The Problem

659,340 people in Massachusetts fall into the SNAP gap

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most effective anti-hunger program our country has. For every meal our colleagues at Feeding America affiliated food banks provide, SNAP is estimated to provide nine. Every household enrolled in SNAP is additional federal dollars brought into the state to address food insecurity and an invaluable resource to that family. The crisis before, during, and after the pandemic will not be solved by charity alone.

That's why it's so important to close the SNAP Gap - the difference between the number of Massachusetts residents who are likely SNAP eligible and the number of people actually receiving SNAP. 

Using MassHealth and Department of Transitional Assistance data, Project Bread estimates as of March 2021. Over 659,340 Massachusetts individuals were eligible for SNAP, but not currently enrolled.

  • 27.9% are children (18 or under)
  •  7.9% are seniors (65 and over)
SNAP Gap Chart

Closing the SNAP gap

Common applications are key to getting eligible people signed up for SNAP

A key to closing the SNAP Gap is allowing people to apply for both MassHealth and SNAP using one common application. Project Bread is advocating for An Act to Streamline Access to Critical Public Health and Safety-Net Programs Through Common Applications  (S.761/H.1290) because it would do just that.

As one of the organizations working every day to close the SNAP Gap, we know that requiring multiple applications at once or trying to reach back out to individuals to complete the second or third in a series of similar applications is not an effective process, and it is leaving people behind.

Allowing for a common application and a streamlined submission of documentation means that individuals can receive the right support at the right time, ultimately reducing food insecurity, lowering rates of poverty, and increasing the overall health of our communities.

Advocating for the solution

Read our legislative testimony in support of An Act to Streamline Access to Critical Public Health and Safety-Net Programs through Common Applications

On July 20, 2021, Project Bread delivered the testimony below to the Joint Committee on Committee on Healthcare Financing, including Senate Chair, Cindy Friedman, and House Chair, John Lawn, Jr., during a State House hearing.

Food Insecurity Was a Problem Before the Pandemic

Project Bread is a statewide anti-hunger organization committed to connecting people and communities in Massachusetts to reliable sources of food while advocating for policies that make food accessible—so that no one goes hungry. As we begin to recover from COVID-19, food insecurity is still at elevated levels. According to the Census Bureau, over 1 in 7 households and nearly 1 in 5 households with children have faced food insecurity over the last six months. Food is the most basic of human needs, and research has shown time and time again the long-term negative outcomes associated with lack of access to this basic need – people experiencing food insecurity will get sick more often (1), are more likely to be hospitalized (2), and have higher rates of obesity, depression, and chronic illness (2). 

It is important to speak to why there is hunger in our state. The underlying reason why people struggle to afford healthy food, despite economic growth in our nation and state before and even during COVID-19, is that wages simply have not kept pace with the high cost of living. This is a particularly acute problem in Massachusetts as an especially expensive state in which to live. Someone working full-time making minimum wage cannot afford a two bedroom apartment in any community in our state (3). The costs of rent (3), childcare (4), and (5) healthcare are higher than average in our state. And most households do not have enough savings to cover an unexpected expense of $400 (6). So, when life brings an unexpected change or challenge, as life always does – a divorce, a lost job, a health care crisis – the bills add up and people struggle to put food on the table. 

This was all true before March 2020, but the pandemic put these problems in starker relief. As unemployment ballooned, food prices increased, and stores struggled with supply, families already struggling found it even harder to make ends meet. Flexibilities and benefit boosts in 2020 and 2021 helped, but far too many families are going hungry and far too many are still not utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) despite being eligible. Using MassHealth and Department of Transitional Assistance data, Project Bread estimates as of March 2021, 659,340 Massachusetts individuals were eligible for SNAP, but not currently enrolled. 27.9% are children 18 or under and 7.9% are seniors 65 and over (7). This is what is referred to as the SNAP Gap.

SNAP is the most effective anti-hunger program. Every household enrolled in SNAP is additional federal dollars brought into the state to address food insecurity and an invaluable resource to that family. For every meal our colleagues at Feeding America affiliated food banks provide, SNAP is estimated to provide nine (8). The crisis before, during, and after the pandemic will not be solved by charity alone. 

Aside from the direct benefit, SNAP also provides several important secondary benefits to food insecure households. The most significant of which is directly certifying children for free school meals if they reside in a household that receives SNAP benefits. This direct certification also allows schools to elect to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which allows a school, group of schools, or a district to serve free school meals to all students if enough students are directly certified. For schools already utilizing CEP, higher direct certification numbers can lead to greater levels of federal reimbursement for meals. 

We need to close the SNAP gap and enacting An Act to Streamline Access to Critical Public Health and Safety-Net Programs Through Common Applications into law is key to making this happen.

The Opportunity of Closing the SNAP Gap

Access to food is a basic need that we have the means to meet, and we should. At Project Bread, we know that until everyone has reliable access to healthy and affordable food, we will never level the playing field and efforts to address other inequities will be in vain. Someone who is lacking the most basic of human needs is not in a condition to learn, live, and thrive. 

While our state has made great progress in getting more people enrolled in SNAP over the past 15 years, there is more work to be done. At Project Bread, through our FoodSource Hotline, we screen callers for SNAP eligibility and provide callers across Massachusetts with information and referrals to community food resources. We are grateful for the Legislature’s support of this important program. Additionally, Project Bread employs SNAP enrollment coordinators who work directly in community health centers to meet with food-insecure families and individuals, and provide the information, assistance, and advocacy they need to enroll in SNAP. Most recently, Project Bread launched the Flexible Services program in April 2020, three months ahead of schedule in response to the pandemic. While this program does not directly provide SNAP application assistance, our coordinators work with MassHealth patients to utilize Medicaid dollars on “non-medical” expenses to address social determinants of health. As part of this program, MassHealth patients not currently receiving SNAP benefits are encouraged to apply and referred to the FoodSource Hotline. 

To address the SNAP Gap, DTA and its partners, including Project Bread, call identified households previously known to DTA. Unfortunately, individuals and families in a crisis can be difficult to reach. Days, weeks, and months after a MassHealth application and phones are disconnected, addresses change, and circumstances shift. Few of these calls yield to conversation much less a SNAP application.

Our participation in DTA’s SNAP Gap outreach program and our broader SNAP outreach work give us a unique perspective on the most effective ways to reach and support low-income individuals and families facing food insecurity. It also provides insight into the challenges faced by this population in navigating the application process, particularly when individuals are interacting with multiple programs and, therefore, multiple application processes. We know that for too many individuals, the complicated application process can be onerous, even prohibitive, and can lead to lower levels of enrollment.

Before COVID-19

This was a serious challenge for food insecure households before COVID-19. Take for example Ms. V, a senior supported by our SNAP enrollment coordinator at Family Health Center of Worcester. Ms. V had just relocated to Worcester from Puerto Rico to be near her daughter as she was finding it more difficult to live on her own. Her daughter had no previous experience with the application processes for MassHealth or SNAP, but she was learning that in order for her mother to thrive in her new home, she would have to get her connected to a variety of assistance options available to her. Time and again, her daughter had to take time off of work to go to multiple places to navigate multiple application processes, costing her income and delaying her mother’s enrollment. These consequences could have been avoided if she had the ability to fill out one application for her mother’s MassHealth and SNAP.

During COVID-19

A flexible services coordinator spoke with a single parent who lost their job during the pandemic. Due to her immigration status, she was not able to collect unemployment. She was referred to Project Bread by Children’s Hospital after her bills began to pile up and she was facing eviction. Even though her family was already enrolled in MassHealth, she thought she did not qualify for SNAP due to her immigration status. After speaking to our coordinator, she learned she was able to apply for SNAP for her citizen children. 

Another client spoke to a different flexible services coordinator. She was also enrolled in MassHealth and struggling with both housing and food insecurity. When she spoke with Project Bread, she was living in temporary housing with her two daughters on Cape Cod. She did not think she could apply for SNAP because she had lost her social security card. Our FoodSource Hotline was able to walk her through an application and when our coordinator followed up, the client was receiving SNAP benefits. 

If these clients were offered the opportunity to apply for SNAP alongside their applications to MassHealth, they would have already been receiving critical food resources rather than facing greater food insecurity in the midst of a global public health and economic crisis. 

Massachusetts Families Need the Legislature’s Help

These stories are not uncommon. There are hundreds of thousands of people all over the Commonwealth who are navigating a complicated system while doing everything they can to provide for themselves and their families. As one of the organizations working every day to close the SNAP Gap, we know that requiring multiple applications at once or trying to reach back out to individuals to complete the second or third in a series of similar applications is not an effective process, and it is leaving people behind. In a soon to be released research study on the barriers to SNAP participation conducted by Project Bread, UMass Boston Center for Survey Research, and the City of Boston Office of Food Access, it was found that the logistics of applying were a major consideration for those surveyed. Over a third of respondents, 36.6% reported difficulty with the application for SNAP and 43% reported access to a computer being a concern when seeking food resources. We also know that efforts to later reach individuals who are enrolled in MassHealth and are likely also eligible for SNAP but not currently enrolled is treating the symptom instead of going after the source. Allowing for a common application and a streamlined submission of documentation means that individuals can receive the right support at the right time, ultimately reducing food insecurity, lowering rates of poverty, and increasing the overall health of our communities.

I urge you to break down barriers that restrict people from accessing food, the most basic of human needs. Please report An Act to Streamline Access to Critical Public Health and Safety-Net Programs Through Common Applications favorably out of committee. Project Bread is grateful to the Legislature for your strong partnership in our work to prevent and end hunger in Massachusetts.

I also encourage any individual struggling with food insecurity to contact our FoodSource Hotline—800-645-8333—to begin an application for SNAP and to be connected to nearby community food resources. 

-Erin McAleer
President & CEO, Project Bread

Sources

(1) Seligman HK, Laraia BA, Kushel MB. Food Insecurity Is Associated with Chronic Disease among Low-Income NHANES Participants. J Nutr. 2010;140(2):304. doi:10.3945/JN.109.112573

(2) Gundersen C, Ziliak JP. Food Insecurity And Health Outcomes. https://doi.org/101377/hlthaff20150645. 2017;34(11):1830-1839. doi:10.1377/HLTHAFF.2015.0645

(3) Aurand A, Emmanuel D, Threet D, Yentel D. the High Cost of Housing. Published online 2020:281. www.nlihc.org/oor

(4) Child Care Aware of America. The US High and the High Cost of Child Care: A Review of Prices and Proposed Solutions for a Broken System. Published online 2018.

(5) Kaiser Family Foundation. Average Annual Family Premium per Enrolled Employee For Employer-Based Health Insurance. Accessed July 15, 2021. https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/family-coverage/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Total Annual Premium%22,%22sort%22:%22desc%22%7D

(6) Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2019, Featuring Supplemental Data from April 2020. 2020;(May):66. www.federalreserve.gov/publications/default.htm.

(7) Department of Transitional. SNAP Gap Data.; 2021.

(8) Hall V. End of Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Feeding America. Accessed July 15, 2021. https://www.feedingamerica.org/about-us/press-room/end-farmers-families-food-box

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