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Closing The Loop Between Food Stamps And Food On The Table

There’s a disconnect between food stamps and the people who need them.

To use San Francisco as an example, around one in four people face food insecurity and hunger, the SF-Marin Food Bank reports. Yet nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, eligible citizens are leaving $13 billion in food stamp benefits on the table.

What is keeping people in need from accessing this available resource? One startup believes logistics is the answer, plain and simple. Signing up for food stamps is cumbersome, believes San Francisco startup mRelief, and worse for applicants whose access to internet and transportation resources may be limited.

For instance, those who struggle to pay for food likely also struggle to pay for other resources in their lives. It’s not uncommon for them to lose access to the internet at some point in the month, whether they are accessing from a web browser or mobile device.

Sure, the library has computers they can use — if they can get there. But chances are, they don’t own a car, can’t afford an Uber and may struggle to afford even “cheap” public transportation options. That becomes an even bigger problem when they get to the next phase and need to show up for an interview.

In its early days, according to TechCrunch, mRelief learned that more than half of people who needed food stamps were applying for them in person. The process could keep them tied up at the office for hours trying to turn that “available” resource into an ink-and-paper document that could actually provide them value in the real world.

So, even when transportation wasn’t a limiting factor, it’s clear that there were other obstacles, including the necessary sacrifice of time that could be spent working or looking for work, keeping food stamps from reaching hungry families.

Startup mRelief wanted to close that loop. The company formerly focused on helping applicants find out whether they were eligible to receive food stamps and other social services, but reality showed that this function was not enough to fully help individuals and families facing food insecurity.

So, the startup built out its services to provide guidance and support from the beginning to the end of the process. It starts with not only web-based messaging, but SMS-based text messaging, solving for the scenario of potentially losing access to Wi-Fi.

“Text messaging is something [that] will last throughout the month, no matter how much data you have,” mRelief Co-Founder and CTO Genevieve Nielsen told TechCrunch.

“It’s also very easy and very conversational. We don’t want internet access to be a barrier.”

The company also offers Lyft rides to interviews. Naturally, since cost is such an exclusive factor in this situation, both the service and rides are free to users, funded through partnerships with the California Department of Social Services, San Francisco County and Yolo County Health and Human Services Department.

Since partnering with CalFresh, a program for low-income people who meet federal income eligibility rules and want to add to their budget to put healthy and nutritious food on the table, mRelief has facilitated a significant shift to mobile for the program. Before the partnership, 52 percent of applicants completed the process in person. Now, 81 percent of users are applying via mobile.

Co-founder and Executive Director Rose Afriyie of mRelief told TechCrunch, “Our mission has long been to restore dignity by transforming access to social services. This, for us, is about [the] government being able to partner with startups to build effective innovation for food stamp programs.”

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