In 2014, the USDA reported that more than 48 million Americans lived in “food insecure” households, meaning that at points throughout the year they lacked sufficient food for an active, healthy life for all household members.1 In other words, they were hungry. This picture was even worse among households with children, where roughly one in five households—which included 15 million children—were food insecure. Food insecurity has significant negative consequences for health and nutritional well-being. For children especially, the costs extend beyond the immediate concerns of hunger; insufficient access to food jeopardizes children’s long-term health, educational performance, and life chances.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s single most efficient and cost-effective tool in reducing hunger. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP is the largest nutrition assistance program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).2 The goal of the program is “to alleviate hunger and malnutrition … by increasing food purchasing power for all eligible households who apply for participation.”3 The program provides monthly benefits to eligible low-income families to purchase food.4 The benefits are delivered through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which are used like debit cards at authorized food retailers.5 Although certain items are prohibited, SNAP benefits allow recipients to purchase many food products.6
The majority of SNAP beneficiaries are children, working parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities. SNAP has also played an important role in lifting millions of people—especially children—out of poverty for the past five decades.7 Despite SNAP’s powerful potential, millions of eligible people do not participate in the program. There are many reasons for this lack of participation. People may not know that they are eligible and/or are confused about the benefits. For some, the application process seems complicated and time-consuming. There may be additional compounding factors, such as language barriers or time and transportation barriers for the working poor. Seniors may not understand the nature of the program and choose not to apply for benefits, thinking children or families need the help more. And there is often a social stigma attached to receiving these federal benefits. Ultimately, the result is that millions of eligible people forgo nutrition assistance that could stretch their food dollars.
Outreach and education are powerful tools in overcoming barriers to SNAP participation, and city chief executives are uniquely positioned to put these tools to work. Using the SNAP Ambassadors blueprint as a guide, city leaders can use their positions of authority to raise awareness about the SNAP program in their cities. They can focus the energy of citizen volunteers to help educate target populations about the benefits of SNAP and they can build collaborative partnerships with local stakeholders to help provide structural and long-term solutions to the challenges of hunger and food insecurity.