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A variety of politicians and activists are making a new attempt at tackling the perennial challenge of ensuring that needy New Yorkers can get the food to which they’re legally entitled. From bureaucratic red tape to misinformation about eligibility, barriers stand between citizens and food stamps – and efforts to lower the barriers and boost participation are underway.

According to the Human Resources Administration (HRA), a total of 1,081,331 city residents were enrolled in the food stamp program as of this November. But there are another 700,000 New Yorkers eligible for food stamps and not receiving them, according to a report released last month by FoodChange, a nutrition advocacy group.

Recent activist and political efforts are focused mainly on increasing participation among legal immigrants, because approximately a quarter of those eligible but not involved – more than 180,000 people – are legal immigrants. Obstacles that affect all applicants can be intensified for immigrants by legal restrictions and confusion about food stamp eligibility and citizenship.

Some steps toward improving accessibility have already been taken, such as shortening applications from 16 pages to eight, and switching to some “paperless” electronic processing. Web services such as the new ACCESS NYC help applicants see which social service programs they may qualify for, without visiting government offices.

City Councilmember Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) envisions many ways in which immigrant access to food stamps could be improved, including an online application and extending office hours to include nights and weekends. Gioia would also like to see a “proactive social services agency” that would target people eligible for food stamps who are also enrolled in other assistance programs such as Child Health Plus and free lunch programs.

He says a “tipping point” on this issue has been reached in the past six months. “When good people learn the sad facts they want to do something about it. I think there’s been real progress in the past few years convincing people that there’s a problem and that there’s a solution,” Gioia said. “It’s not just a public policy issue, it’s a moral issue as well.”

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH), which represents more than 1,200 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries, has joined forces with HRA and FoodChange to improve the food stamp registration process via the paperless system that is being implemented in food stamp offices. This pilot project would allow for applicants to have their application, along with any other relevant documents, scanned into the system at an offsite location prior to an in-person meeting at the food stamp office.

The efforts of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), an umbrella policy and advocacy organization working with immigrants and refugees, include ensuring that all eligible New Yorkers are allowed to apply for food stamps regardless of language proficiency. New York City’s Central Labor Council is a part of this coalition effort as well. The council is working on getting accurate information regarding food stamp eligibility out to the public via its members and labor leaders, in addition to partnering with community-based organizations. NYIC Director of Health Advocacy Adam Gurvitch also notes that the upcoming USDA Farm Bill should help provide expanded access to food stamps for legal immigrants.

Many politicians and advocates have been working on the issue of immigrant food stamp access since the major welfare reform of 1996. Immigrant access to food stamps has received more attention recently because of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s commitment to ending urban hunger, combined with the council’s “Food Today, Healthy Tomorrow” initiative that aims to enroll 350,000 additional recipients over the next three years. The recent naming of a city food policy coordinator, Benjamin Thomases, should also help the efforts, a Quinn spokesperson said.

HRA spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio says the agency welcomes the help of outside groups. “We support increased participation, absolutely,” said Brancaccio, who also noted that HRA’s methodology puts the number of eligible non-participants at less than 500,000. HRA is working to enroll more people, too, she said, through efforts including expanding application centers’ hours in the coming months and implementing the pilot program for modernization.

The city has an economic incentive for increasing food stamp enrollment as well. Lagging participation in nutrition programs result in an annual economic loss of $1 billion in federal funding and economic opportunities for the city. According to NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg, at least $500 million in food stamp benefits go unused each year as a result of under-enrollment.

Food stamps, in the traditional sense, are a thing of the past. The use of electronic benefit transfers in the form of plastic cards, which function and look like debit cards, has resulted in a more efficient and less stigmatizing form of government assistance. A household of four would be eligible with a net monthly income of $1,613.

Access to these benefits for legal immigrants can be hindered by misinformation and bureaucracy. Many illegal immigrants who qualify for food stamps are often unaware that they are entitled to government assistance. And many legal immigrants incorrectly worry that receiving food stamps could endanger their chances at citizenship. Other barriers to participation include restrictive office hours, language barriers and the disrespect food stamp recipients say they sometimes feel when going to food stamp offices.

– Elizabeth Henderson

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