The lines for food at Seattle’s food banks have increased dramatically as the recession has developed and lingered on.  But, while food banks and other emergency assistance programs are essential parts of feeding the hungry, the most efficient, dignified, and cost-effective way for people in need to get access to food is through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formally known as food stamps.

With SNAP, families in need have the choice of what food to get and where and when to get it.  The system uses the private sector to deliver this assistance, with minimal bureaucracy.  And it provides certainty to those in need so that they can focus on the many other critical issues of poverty and unemployment.

There’s only one catch.  Many people who could benefit from SNAP do not realize that they are eligible.  So they remain dependent on the other food programs, which strain these vital community resources.  Under current law, families with incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible for assistance, with the amount of assistance varying by income and size of family.  That means that a family of three earning up to $3000 a month can get help.

In the 2008 budget process, the Council reviewed the statistics, which showed that only a minority of those in Seattle who could get benefits were actually receiving them.  In order to increase the number of people who would be helped through SNAP, we added $85,000 to the Human Services Department budget for 2009 and 2010 to fund a position to do outreach and help people determine eligibility and apply for benefits.

Initial results are in, and the outreach effort has succeeded.  In just a few months of work during 2009, the new staff person conducted outreach and community engagement at food banks and community events, and built partnerships with other organizations.  Using the City’s innovative PeoplePoint web benefit portal, the number of people who enrolled for SNAP benefits increased from 146 in 2008 to 423 in 2009.  That means that 277 families received an average of $2,174 in benefits that they otherwise likely would not have known about.  In addition to accessing this more than $600,000 in food benefits, the staff person helped people access some $650,000 in other benefits.

The $85,000 invested in this program in 2009 returned some 15 times that amount to Seattle residents in need.  In the long run, we hope that these beneficiaries will be able to find jobs and get back on their feet, so they will not need to access these benefits.  In this difficult time, however, it is important that the City made this smart investment in helping people get through their crises with adequate nutrition and other essential services.