By Bill Ayres, WhyHunger Co-Founder and Executive Director

Over the past three years our country has faced the worst economic crisis since the great depression.  Unemployment, long term unemployment, poverty and home foreclosures have risen dramatically yet hunger and food insecurity have not.  How did that happen?  Who performed this economic miracle in the midst of an economic nightmare?

America’s emergency food system with its thousands of food pantries and soup kitchens have certainly done their job well but as heroic as their efforts have been, they are dwarfed by the dramatic increase in the number of people served by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Several years ago USDA eliminated the paper food stamps and replaced them with an Electronic Benefit Card that recipients use at food stores.  That has eliminated the shame attached with showing the paper stamps at the check out counter and has greatly reduced fraud and trafficking to their lowest rates ever.

In May of 2008 there were more than 27 million people on SNAP.  Three years later in May 2011 there are more than 45 million, an increase of 62 percent.  This happened at a time of state budget cuts that reduced the number of SNAP workers processing millions more people.  How did they overcome this logistical nightmare?

They improved in their three main areas of work: outreach, access and customer service and actually lowered their error rates and time of delivery.  They found new outreach partners, especially food banks, food pantries, homeless shelters, places of worship, soup kitchens, schools, hospitals, senior centers, veteran organizations, counseling centers and farmers markets.  They designated staff to focus on outreach and sent them to these partners to set up shop on given days.  Some offices have mobile vans that go to rural areas and hard to reach populations.  They use the media to get their message out through public service announcements and they attend local and state events such as fairs, parades and other public gatherings.  When a business closes or lays off a large number of workers a SNAP outreach person comes to the business to sign people up for benefits.  Most important, when floods, tornados or other natural disasters struck SNAP was there providing an emergency SNAP card to help thousands of people in their time of direst need.

Most SNAP offices have improved access by staying open longer hours to accommodate the working poor, doing interviews by phone for seniors and the disabled, helping people to sign up online, having workers give the clients their direct numbers so they do not become lost in a phone maze, providing a drop in box to leave applications. One office has developed a “give up list” of questions and procedures that are redundant or unnecessary, thus speeding up the process.

Many SNAP offices have had a turnaround or at least an improvement in customer service.  They provide emergency food for those who are in immediate need and connect clients to other government social services and non profit organizations that can help them to find the resources they need to move out of poverty.  They provide nutrition education and sometimes even cooking classes.  They designate a person to be a greeter who will lead clients to the proper place, check to make sure they have all the documents they need and give  a sense of welcome to parents and children rather than fear and dread that have been too much a part of past government offices.

I believe that there has truly been a SNAP miracle in the past three years.  Massive hunger in our country has been averted, especially among children and the most vulnerable in our society.   Eighteen million new people are on the program.   A whole government system is well into a process of transformation in which workers are being appreciated for good customer service, treating people as persons not numbers and servicing people on time while protecting the integrity of the program by eliminating fraud.

SNAP is also an economic stimulus.  For every dollar spent on the program $1.84 goes into the economy of local communities creating jobs and stabilizing neighborhoods.   In itself, it will not solve the unemployment problem but it does help.  What we know it does is prevent large scale hunger in our country.  In these days of crisis and skepticism about how well government programs work we should be thankful that something so important and massive works so well.