NJ SNAP expands to help feed residents during pandemic; Now is the time to build on that success, report says
The number of people receiving food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) expanded 23 percent during the pandemic, helping fight hunger when so many New Jersey residents were struggling to put food on the table.
Now is the time to build on this pandemic-fueled expansion so that this important nutrition support reaches all New Jersey residents who could benefit, says a new report from Hunger Free New Jersey.
While the boost in enrollment – and monthly benefits amounts – during the pandemic is positive, SNAP could still reach more residents in need, said Adele LaTourette, director Hunger Free New Jersey.
“SNAP supports the food security, health and economic well-being of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents, while also pumping roughly one billion dollars into New Jersey’s local economies each year,’’ she said. “We need to take this opportunity to strengthen this critical program.’’
Last year, Hunger Free New Jersey undertook a project, in partnership with The Food Trust and the Food Research & Action Center with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to examine barriers to SNAP participation and identify solutions. Two surveys were conducted and three SNAP Summits were held with various New Jersey organizations. The results of that research is summarized in the report, which found three key barriers to SNAP enrollment:
- An unwieldly and difficult application system,
- Inadequate community outreach and education to potentially eligible residents,
- Lack of consistent service at county Boards of Social Service offices.
During the pandemic, the federal government boosted monthly SNAP benefits and relaxed several rules, making it easier for people to apply and receive this aid. New Jersey participated in all the waivers, including extending certification periods and waiving period reporting between certifications, eliminating interviews before being approved, allowing telephonic signatures on applications and increasing monthly benefit amounts.
Many of these changes should be made permanent at the federal level. In addition, New Jersey should take steps to strengthen SNAP and make it more accessible to all New Jersey residents who can benefit, the report said.
“We are working with our national partners at the federal level to make some of these changes permanent,’’ LaTourette said. “In addition, there are steps that should be taken on the state level to strengthen SNAP and make it more accessible to all New Jersey residents who can benefit.’’
The report makes a series of recommendations in those three areas.
Streamline the application process by:
- Updating the online system to make it user-friendly and employ current technology,
- Editing the application to be clearer and use plain language,
- Simplifying the income verification process,
- Educating community-based organizations about assisting clients in completing online applications and submitting them via telephone, while leveraging community partners’ capacity to offer clients computer access.
Expand community outreach to educate the public about the program and assist more potentially eligible residents in completing the application process, with a focus on college students, older adults, immigrants and the newly unemployed. This should include expanded state funding of outreach efforts and engaging new partners, such as the healthcare and school systems, in reaching potentially eligible residents.
Examine the level of customer service provided at county Boards of Social Services to identify challenges and solutions at the county level. This should include administering a customer satisfaction survey to identify and address issues in each county and creating a call center where people can access a live person to assist with issues.
Pandemic EBT Improvements
The report also made recommendations for improving the implementation of Pandemic EBT, a child nutrition program that is separate from SNAP and that provides federal dollars to help families buy groceries during the pandemic.
Stakeholders agreed that there needs to be more clarity than in previous rollouts. With a new round expected this spring, the New Jersey Department of Human Services should:
- Engage school officials, advocates, child care providers and community organizations to keep them informed of the program rollout and to assist with communicating information to families.
- Establish and adequately staff a toll-free, statewide hotline where people can reach a live person to investigate their case and resolve issues.
“We look forward to working with state officials, legislative leaders and our many partners to advance these changes so that all New Jersey residents have healthy food to eat, every single day,’’ LaTourette said.