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Outreach worker helps hungry access nutrition programs

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Are food stamps a solution– or a symptom of a problem, reflecting too much government dependence and a sign of rampant unemployment? Outreach worker Amy DeLaCruz, also known as “the food stamp lady” by her clients, believes they are a safety net against hunger. “Sometimes you need a little extra help,” said DeLaCruz, a Project Bread envoy who works with immigrants, elderly, unemployed and others in Chelsea and Boston to help increase their participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. “It’s heartbreaking. A lot of people find it hard to hold back tears. They’re stuck in something so horrific they can’t see the light. I’ve heard and seen it all.” DeLaCruz said that research shows that the key to preventing hunger is not just providing relief through food pantries and soup kitchens, but also using all existing resources, such as federal nutrition programs such as SNAP.

Unlike the paper vouchers of the past, today’s SNAP program uses a debit card that is swiped to purchase everything from deli items to ethnic foods. This has removed some of the stigma of food stamps, but Spanish-speaking DeLaCruz, 26, said that Latinos in particular are reluctant to apply and use SNAP. “They have pride in providing for themselves and are reluctant to receive what they perceive as a handout,” said DeLaCruz, who regularly visits health and social service centers, where she encourages patients and visitors to apply for SNAP by distributing informational brochures, providing application assistance, and answering questions.

1. Q: Do you have an experience with a family or individual that makes you say, “this is why I do what I do?”
A: Today I spoke with a 35-year-old single mom from Haiti who had no income and was finding it hard to find a job because she was pregnant. She is paying for rent and utilities with her savings, but her money is dwindling down. I ran through the pre-screening process to see if she qualified for SNAP, and her sense of relief was huge. It was music to her ears to hear that she would be able to receive help getting food for her two young children.

Q: What drew you to this kind of outreach program?
A: After college, I was a volunteer in Honduras, helping to alleviate malnutrition among villagers, providing them with a few bags of rice or beans, and helping locals become self-sustaining. I came back to the U.S. to find that hunger is also very real here in my own country, where many people are also struggling for food. I was grateful to be able to similar work in hunger outreach here in Boston.

2. Q: How many applications do you fill out on behalf of your clients on a monthly basis?
A: Project Bread processes about 218 applications a month. One of the biggest issues is getting the correct documents to SNAP caseworkers. As with many government-run programs, the qualification requirements can be complex. But there are a lot of myths out there about SNAP. Some immigrants say things like, “I don’t want the government to take my children if they find out I am undocumented.” In reality, non-citizens can qualify for the program, and it’s separate from the immigration process.

Q: What’s the hardest part of your job?
A: Not always being able to provide as much as I would like to. People tell me their life stories, and they don’t just have issues with food insecurity; it’s abuse, money, childcare dilemmas and a whole list of problems. Some just need someone to talk with and help them figure out the next step and solutions.

Q: Do you hate throwing away food yourself?
A: I do. I yell at my niece and sister and scold them, “Take only what you are going to eat.” So many people in this country would love to have that food.

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