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Hundreds of thousands of people who qualify for food assistance in Mass. don’t apply, study says. Here’s why.

"We know there’s a gap, which is really important, now how are we actually going to close it.” 

Stan Grossfield/Globe staff, file

When the state shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, thousands of people were left without jobs, and nearly 20 percent of residents were left food insecure, according to a recent study.

One of those people was Chelsea resident Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. For the past 15 years, she had worked at a flower shop, but she lost her job during the shutdown.

Anna applied for unemployment, as well as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, but when the unemployment kicked in, she was approved to receive just $16 per month.

“That obviously didn’t help me with anything,” Anna told Boston.com through an interpreter as English isn’t her first language.

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Fortunately for Anna, she was able to get help with her SNAP application via Project Bread, which has a FoodSource Hotline to help people apply for these benefits.

Certain barriers keep people from taking advantage of these benefits, according to a study conducted by Project Bread, the Boston Office of Food Access, and the UMass Boston Center for Survey Research.

In Massachusetts, they number 659,340.

Some of the barriers include attitudes toward the program, including stigmas or incorrect ideas of who SNAP helps, to fears of applying due to immigration status, to a surprising amount of eligible people who just don’t know about the program.

The study did identify some ways to combat these barriers, including awareness, making the application easier, and increasing the amount of benefits beyond “a subsistence diet.”

Food insecurity soars during the pandemic

As the COVID-19 crisis quickly unfolded in spring 2020, the need for food assistance skyrocketed, according to Erin McAleer, CEO of Project Bread. She noted that at the peak, the organization’s food hotline received seven times its usual call volume. While no longer at the peak of need, there’s still many more calls than prior to the pandemic.

“I mean we’ve doubled the size of our FoodSource Hotline staff as an example,” she told Boston.com in a recent interview.

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The proof is also in the numbers — signups for SNAP in Massachusetts rose by over 21 percent between February 2020 and May 2021, according to the study.

While SNAP is “a more complicated program” than some of the other food assistance initiatives, McAleer also described the benefits.

“It’s the most effective anti-hunger program, and I think that’s really important because it gives people the purchasing power to buy food,” she said.

Most people on SNAP are children, McAleer said. During 2019, children made up 43 percent of the people who were signed up. The next highest demographic was adults who weren’t elderly or disabled, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.

SNAP also has economic benefits, according to the study. For every $1 spent using SNAP benefits, $1.70 is created in economic activity.

“It puts money back into communities,” McAleer said.

SNAP also uses existing grocery stores versus some anti-hunger programs that involve transporting food.

SNAP barriers

For Anna, receiving SNAP benefits was critical when she lost her job due to COVID-19. She was one of the many people to sign up for SNAP for the first time during the crisis.

She’s always had a job, she said, but the pandemic quickly took it away. Anna also contracted COVID-19.

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Anna also has to rely on herself. She lives with one of her adult children, she said, but that’s it. Her husband was deported back to Guatemala about a year-and-a-half ago, she said.

“I’ve been on my own since,” she said, noting that she does get some help from a social worker, who has helped her seek treatment for her depression, among other assistance.

Turning to the food hotline helped Anna get her SNAP application in, but for many, just filling out the application is a barrier.

The study surveyed 823 people to ask them about SNAP awareness. It also endeavored to show how the way someone feels about the program could affect whether they sign up. The survey delved into what experiences have been like using SNAP, as well.

Of the people surveyed, nearly 80 percent were worried that they would run out of food before they were able to buy more.

The top barrier was misinformation, according to the study. People are concerned they could be taking the benefits away from someone else who needs them more.

It isn’t true, McAleer said. SNAP doesn’t run out.

“SNAP is meant to expand during economic downturns and retract when the economy is improving,” she said. “It is based on who needs it. It is an entitlement program if you’re eligible for it. So you’re absolutely not taking it away from anyone else.”

Another barrier is computer access, with 43 percent of respondents identifying it as something that would block them from applying.

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Then there are the stigmas, with nearly 39 percent of respondents saying they were worried about them. One of them is the idea that those eligible should get a job versus applying for food benefits, according to McAleer.

However, she pointed to the fact that kids make up the largest percentage of people using it.

As for adults, she said many are working, but just are not making enough money. Some of those eligible workers also don’t apply for SNAP because they think it’s just for the unemployed.

“I do think this program in particular has unfortunately been political fodder in election after election, and we’re seeing how the misconceptions about the program and false narratives have unfortunately impacted people,” McAleer said. “They’ve caused people to go hungry unnecessarily, and so it’s on all of us to really change the narrative.”

Having difficulty filling out the application is also a barrier, the study shows.

Then there’s the people who just don’t know about it — about 32 percent of respondents said they either knew little or nothing about the program.

When considering just BIPOC respondents, the barriers they identified were slightly different. One of them was immigration status — just over 30 percent of Latino respondents and 38 percent of Asian respondents identified this as a reason for not applying.

More than 38 percent of Latino respondents and over 55 percent of Asian respondents also identified the application’s language as a barrier. Project Bread’s food hotline is offered in 180 languages.

How to close the gap

The study identified multiple ways to make it so that more eligible people sign up for SNAP and don’t go needlessly hungry.

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Awareness is key, the study said.

Other proposed improvements, according to the study, include:

  • Making the application easier, as well as having organizations that work with the food insecure provide things like computer access, or a hotline, like the one at Project Bread.
  • Making SNAP benefits available to those who aren’t currently eligible but are facing food insecurity. This could include eligibility changed regarding income or immigration status.
  • Increasing SNAP benefits beyond providing a “subsistence diet.” This could include making the Health Incentives Program, or HIP, permanent. HIP allows those using SNAP to buy food from farmers, like at farmers’ markets or farm stands.
  • Devising a national plan to work on hunger and food insecurity.
  • Making it so that the idea of needing help is normal, and changing damaging language around it.
  • Taking a critical look at research, and making inclusion a priority.

“I think what we really tried to do in our research report is lay out specific things we need to do right now, specific things at the federal level, the state level, programmatically, because the moment’s now,” McAleer said. “We need to be addressing these disparities. So we know there’s a gap, which is really important, now how are we actually going to close it.”

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