Bet Tzedek Legal Services promotes social and economic justice for our clients by providing free legal services to those with low income. We also provide legal advocacy to help those we serve access food stamps – known as SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Why are SNAP benefits so important?
SNAP is our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program, helping 1 in 8 Americans put food on the table. In Massachusetts, SNAP benefits bring over $1.2 billion of food dollars annually to the Commonwealth’s most needy residents. Older adults, people with disabilities, and children under age 18 make up the majority of those who receive SNAP benefits. In addition to providing food sustenance to people in need, SNAP also has a positive ripple effect through the economy.
What are the challenges in accessing SNAP?
Many people who are eligible for SNAP are unaware that the program even exists. Those who do know about the program are often afraid to apply because they have heard that the application process is complicated and demoralizing. People that apply may encounter bureaucratic obstacles. They may have difficulty gathering the paperwork to prove their eligibility, or they are wrongly denied benefits because of errors in processing their applications. After people are approved for SNAP benefits, they must follow strict rules to recertify and report changes in their income. The amount of their benefits is sometimes miscalculated or their SNAP case is improperly closed. Bet Tzedek and CJP Anti-Poverty Initiative identified SNAP advocacy as a crucial need of those we serve. I was hired as Bet Tzedek’s SNAP/Benefits advocate in 2011. We now have two SNAP/Public Benefits advocates who serve a large number of JF&CS clients, as well as clients of our Jewish partner agencies (JFS Metrowest and Yad Chessed), in difficult and complex SNAP cases.
What are the goals of Bet Tzedek’s SNAP advocacy program?
Our primary goal is to directly help clients served by JF&CS and our Jewish partner agencies access benefits to which they are entitled. We help clients who are unable to complete applications on their own to file their applications or recertifications. We represent clients in appeals when their SNAP applications or recertifications are improperly denied, or when their SNAP benefits are improperly reduced or terminated. We also advocate for our clients to receive the maximum benefits and retroactive benefits they are entitled to receive.
A secondary goal of our program is to provide education about SNAP. We conduct SNAP training sessions for case workers in JF&CS programs and our Jewish partner agencies so that they can identify those who may be eligible for SNAP or who may need assistance from our SNAP/Public Benefits advocates. We also provide detailed information about SNAP to all agencies under the CJP Anti-Poverty Initiative.
Lastly, a significant goal of our advocacy program is to work for systemic improvements to SNAP in Massachusetts. Our SNAP/Benefits advocates are members of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s Boston SNAP Coalition and the Department of Transitional Assistance Advisory Board. We play active roles in developing recommendations for improving policy, removing barriers, and expanding access to SNAP benefits.
What led to your work in helping people with SNAP benefits?
Lindsey: My personal experiences led me to the work I do today. I grew up in a low-income single parent home. My family faced the challenges and stigma associated with accessing safety net resources. I remember lacking access to healthy food as a child. Then, as I started a family of my own and my circumstances changed, I again had difficulty accessing healthy food. I encountered the barriers placed on those who seek the SNAP benefits they are entitled to receive. So many forms and verifications, all the hoops to jump through only to have paperwork lost or not processed in time. Thankfully, I received help to navigate the system. The kindness and support I experienced motivated me to support other struggling families.
Rachel: I first became interested in hunger when I was working at an orphanage in Guatemala. Most of the girls there were physically stunted and suffered from many other malnutrition-related health issues. I came to believe that if we could ensure that every needy person is provided with nutritious food, we could not only solve hunger, but also work to reduce many other problems that arise when people lack adequate amounts of healthy food. During college, I founded a nutrition outreach organization. My work at JF&CS as a SNAP/Benefits Advocate continues my goal of helping to make sure that everyone has access to an adequate amount of healthy food. Every day I have the opportunity to help vulnerable families navigate a challenging system of accessing food assistance. It is wonderful to know that my work directly impacts the lives of our clients.