Imagine for a moment that you’ve been working in a factory for almost forty years. You make enough money to get by: you buy a house, raise a family, and volunteer at the local food shelf. But money is always tight. Saving money for retirement or a vacation is out of the question. Then tragedy strikes, and you find yourself in the hospital after suffering a stroke.

This is Chester’s story. At 57 he suffered two strokes. This cost him precious time from his job. When he finally returned to work, he found that the machine he ran was now computer-automated. Chester not only has no computer skills, he is illiterate. His employer put him on the night shift with an older machine and cut his pay to less than half. A divorce added to his debt. There is a good chance he will lose his house. Chester never dreamed of asking for help, but now he desperately needs it.

Although it has many variations, Chester’s story of living on the edge and then being plunged into poverty is more common than many of us would like to think. And it is why the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) exists.

SNAP helps millions of low-income Americans put food on the table, providing benefits that are timely, targeted, and temporary. Program participation historically lags slightly behind unemployment. SNAP participation grew during the recession as the program responded quickly and effectively to increased need. As the number of unemployed people increased by 94 percent from 2007 to 2011, SNAP responded with a 70 percent increase in participation over the same period. As the economy recovers and people go back to work, SNAP participation and program costs are expected to decline. Unemployment has begun to slowly fall, and SNAP participation growth has flattened out. The Congressional Budget Office projects SNAP participation to begin declining by 2015, with both unemployment and SNAP participation returning to near pre-recession levels by 2022.

The SNAP benefits people receive while they struggle financially help them stay healthy and productive. Because the benefits can be spent only on food, SNAP increases a family’s food purchases more than an equivalent amount of cash assistance would. Fruits and vegetables, grain products, meats, and dairy products comprise almost 90 percent of the food that SNAP participants buy. In addition, all states operate SNAP nutrition education programs to help participants make healthy food choices.

SNAP targets our most vulnerable citizens, predominantly serving households with children, elderly, and disabled members. Seventy-six percent of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83 percent of all SNAP benefits. Program eligibility is limited to households with gross incomes of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline, but the majority of households have income well below the maximum: 83 percent of SNAP households have gross incomes at or below 100 percent of the poverty guideline ($19,530 for a family of three in 2013), and these households receive about 91 percent of all benefits. Sixty-one percent of SNAP households have gross incomes at or below 75 percent of the poverty guideline ($14,648 for a family of three in 2013). The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744; a net monthly income of $338 after the standard deduction, and for certain households, deductions for child care, medical expenses, and shelter costs; and countable resources of $331, such as a bank account. Without the SNAP food assistance benefit, these households would face hunger in the starkest sense.

The Need to Reach More Vermonters

In Vermont, SNAP is called 3SquaresVT. 3SquaresVT provides $12 million in benefits to the more than 101,000 people currently enrolled. Yet the 3SquaresVT program has the potential and the resources to assist far more low-income households. There are many reasons eligible people do not apply for 3SquaresVT, including embarrassment and fear, misconceptions about benefit amounts, and a cumbersome application process. For years, food assistance agencies and organizations in Vermont have been working to overcome these barriers and help people more easily obtain the nutrition assistance they so desperately need.

The Vermont Foodbank’s network is uniquely positioned to help both supplement low-income people’s food resources and to reach more people who qualify for the 3SquaresVT program. The Vermont Foodbank distributes more than 8 million pounds of quality food to its network partners who operate the food shelves and meal sites around the state. This food is reaching as many as 86,000 people annually. We know that many of the people who access charitable food at the food sites are also eligible for 3squaresVT benefits but are not being helped because they are not enrolled in the program. Increased participation in 3SquaresVT would not only help the people who need it, but also help alleviate the heavy demand on community food shelves.

Together with the Vermont Department of Children and Families Economic Services Division, the Vermont Foodbank is working to increase awareness and overcome the barriers that prevent people from enrolling. Sally Ingraham, the Vermont Foodbank’s 3SquaresVT outreach manager, is providing direct SNAP education and outreach assistance to families not currently participating in the program. Working in close collaboration with network partners, Sally is scheduling “office hours” at food shelves and meal sites around the state in an effort to connect with those looking for assistance or who have questions regarding the program. Chester, the man whose story was told at the begin of this article, is one of individuals who is now participating because of this outreach effort. To date, more than 20 individuals and families have been enrolled in 3SquaresVT due to Sally’s work, and more than 100 people have been educated about eligibility issues and the program.

Sally says, “To close the gap between the 3SquaresVT resources that are available and those people who could be helped by the program but aren’t enrolled, the Foodbank is directly and compassionately engaging with people who are on the edge.”

The Vermont Foodbank is proud to join the State of Vermont’s ongoing efforts to close the gap between families served and those who remain in need. To learn more about the Vermont Foodbank’s 3SquaresVT outreach, visit our website or call Sally at 802-793-1312.