The phone rings and Dionna, one of 6 members of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank SNAP team, answers it. The man on the line needs to apply for SNAP (food stamps.) He is a hard worker who had 5 jobs before the COVID-19 crisis. One by one, they began to shut down those businesses. He is down to one job now, and his fridge is looking very empty. He is still waiting for unemployment, despite having filed weeks ago. Dionna is bubbly, friendly and quickly completes his application, all from the safe distance of many miles away in her home office. His story is a familiar one, and he is among 704 households that the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank SNAP team has helped feed since the crisis began on March 16th.
For many years, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has carried out the essential service of feeding people across 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. One of the many ways the Food Bank serves the community is by providing application assistance for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP. The SNAP team at the Food Bank fields calls, makes referrals, and connects people with valuable resources. During the COVID-19 emergency, the necessity of the times reinforced that SNAP is indeed essential for many reasons.
As the severity of the situation dawned in mid-March, the SNAP team quickly reorganized for an unprecedented emergency response. Although in-person outreach activities were temporarily suspended, inquiries for SNAP information and emergency food assistance tripled during April and May of 2020; work schedules became almost entirely devoted to handling coronavirus-related calls. Daily duties for taking calls and submitting SNAP applications were divided and scheduled among the 6-person SNAP team to streamline the workflow. Printing and mailing documents was replaced with emailing applicants whenever possible. One additional team member was hired as extra support since regular volunteers were unavailable.
By working together from home and doing more evening and weekend shifts, the SNAP team’s efforts resulted in more than 700 applications equal to 695,092 meals. These benefits also generated well over $3 million dollars for local businesses where people use their SNAP benefits. These stores may have otherwise struggled to keep the lights on without these dollars coming in. SNAP empowers recipients to locally purchase the food they want and need while giving them the flexibility to make good choices. After being in quarantine for months, sometimes choosing your next meal is the most exciting activity you can participate in.
“I’ve never had to ask for help before. I worked my whole life, but my company has been closed for weeks and I need to feed my family.” This has been the constant message that the SNAP team has heard, and continues to hear, day after day. People are frightened and unsure what to expect in the face of sudden job loss, no health insurance, and a general lack of security. Therefore, in addition to hundreds of SNAP applications, the team also handled numerous calls to connect people with additional vital food resources or other services. The SNAP team took extra time to listen, explaining the availability of Food Bank resources, and added referral information for mental health services to the standard list of external resources provided. Many callers expressed deep appreciation for the swift response time which contrasted starkly the extreme wait times for unemployment claims and stimulus money.
Beyond the obvious benefit of receiving emergency food, community members also received much more from the SNAP team. They found a reliable source of help and gained a trusted advocate. Many human service organizations contacted the team about ways to help their clients. Many callers referred others to the SNAP helpline and called more than once to ask someone they knew would provide quality service about additional essential services. Many communities found comfort and stability by keeping food on the table. Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s SNAP team helped provide that stability. The essential service of SNAP offered hundreds of families in the Pittsburgh region a listening ear, a helping hand, and a reason to hope in the midst of a worldwide crisis.
If you know someone in need of a SNAP application, please call 833-822-7627.