A group of local volunteers are teaming up with the Food Bank of Alaska and an all-woman software development company from Chicago to improve Alaskans' access to food assistance.
Chances are you or someone you know is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal nutrition program designed to help families stretch their food budget and access healthy food. Each month through the Alaska Food Stamp Program, SNAP assistance is directly deposited onto an Alaska Quest card, which can then be swiped like a debit card at the store.
In Alaska, about 126,000 people are currently eligible for SNAP and could have additional funds to purchase food. But 27 percent of them -- that's over 34,000 people -- don't, simply because they haven't applied.
On a national level there is criticism that there are too many barriers to applying for SNAP assistance, ranging from lack of information about the program to an intimidating application process. It took me half an hour just to read through the 28-page PDF application, and by the last page I sure wasn't feeling ready to start filling it out just to find out if I was eligible or not. Organizations like the Food Bank of Alaska have stated their concern that the Alaskans most in need of nutritional support are not accessing SNAP benefits.
Rose Afriyie grew up in the Bronx of New York City, with four siblings and the help of social service programs. She co-founded the Chicago-based software company mRelief, working to give people an easier way to find out if they could be eligible for social services such as SNAP using technology like Web apps and SMS texting. The volunteer-run nonprofit Code for Anchorage helped localize their technology for Alaskans.
Four cool things to know about SNAP
- Find out if you are eligible for SNAP assistance via text message or the new Web app wwe.mrelief.com/alaskasnap. Text "food" to 907-312-2300 to begin. Instead of filling out the whole application, you can answer 10 questions via text message. You don't need the Internet, a smartphone or data plan; any flip phone will do. At the end, the free service tells you if you are likely to be eligible and connects you to local resources, like the Division of Public Assistance or local food pantries. You can even request help applying if you qualify.
- Check your SNAP balance via text message in English, Yup'ik, Spanish or Russian. This is a neat way SNAP users can quickly see how much they have left to spend while in the grocery store without having to call and listen to a robotic voice or wait on hold for 10 minutes by texting "hi" to 1-907-312-2080. Code for Anchorage is looking for volunteers to help translate the 15 short responses into different languages.
- Sign up for text alerts when the Food Bank of Alaska is hosting a SNAP workshop close to you. At these events, there are staff available to help people apply. The texts will also notify eligible people who opted in what documents to bring.
- Look for SNAP at farmers markets around the state this summer. Next week, the USDA will be having a SNAP sign-up event for farmers markets. Participating farmers markets should announce if they will be taking Quest cards by April.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture. Reach her at email@example.com.