Cleveland Foodbank Expands Outreach to Provide a Safety Net

by Nicki Gorny

When a Feeding America study revealed that the Cleveland Foodbank would need to supply 57 million meals in the course of a year to ensure that everyone in the area had enough to eat, Foodbank officials knew it was time for a new approach.

“Charity cannot do that alone,” said Karen Pozna, director of communications and special events at the Cleveland Foodbank. “We can try and distribute more food, but we can’t count on all that food being available for donation.”

That’s why Foodbank officials decided to ramp up outreach efforts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, Pozna said. Since outreach efforts began in earnest, she said, the number of people registered for SNAP has increased significantly. With the addition of a Help Center in October 2012 and increase in staff, SNAP applications in the area have jumped, rising from 616 to 3,000 in just one year.

The Help Center, which is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., is unique in that most food banks focus on distributing food, Pozna said. Callers or visitors to the Cleveland Foodbank Help Center, however, can receive assistance in applying for SNAP and other aid programs.

About nine people now work in SNAP outreach at the Foodbank, she said, a significant difference from the one staff member who had previously been committed to signing people up for the program.

Although SNAP is typically a “temporary fix,” she said, with people spending an average nine months as beneficiaries of the program, she said it can be a safety net program to avoid homelessness or not paying for medicine.

“By signing people up for food stamps, they’re able to get some money to go on their own to go to a local supermarket and purchase their own food,” she said. “I think it’s a good program to help feed people,…help alleviate some of the burden on the food pantries and help generate money back into the local economy.”

As a major part of their outreach efforts, Pozna said the Foodbank is working with local organizations to spread the word about SNAP. In particular, she said, the Foodbank is targeting suburban areas, where recent economic downturns have forced residents to take new jobs at lower wages.

“You can be working and still be eligible for food stamps,” she said. “People in the suburbs don't always have the knowledge as far as where to turn for help.”

Eligibility for SNAP is dependent on the number of people in a household and their collective monthly income.  Details can be found at the Cleveland Foodbank website.

For their successful outreach efforts, the Cleveland Foodbank received the Mary Ruth Herbers SNAP Outreach Excellence in Food Banking Award this year at the annual Feeding America Network Executive Directors’ Forum. This award distinguishes the Cleveland Foodbank among the 202 food banks across the country in the Feeding America network.

In the 2012 Presidential campaign and as part of the discussion on raising the debt ceiling, there was a great deal of criticism of the large increase in the food stamp or SNAPs program.  Ponza responded to this criticism, “I really think that the program is doing what it is meant to do in a time of crisis…It helps get food to people in need.”   She reminds people of the hardship caused by the 2008 downturn that threw many households into crisis, and the food stamp program was in place to help families with their nutrition needs. 

And outreach efforts will continue this year, Pozna said, to help bridge the meal gap in the Cleveland area.

Copyright NEOCH and Street Chronicle May 2013 Cleveland, Ohio