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In The Bank

Posted on Monday, September 24th, 2012

At the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach program, NYCCAH AmeriCorps VISTAs are assisting inmates re-entering the community.  This effort began in 2011 with a partnership between The Food Bank and After Incarceration Support Services (AISS), a comprehensive program run by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department.  At AISS, case workers work with clients after release to help them access services, including substance abuse treatment, housing, and job placement.  Even with these services, individuals with criminal records face significant challenges getting their lives back on track, including becoming food secure. Because society stigmatizes them, their paths to recovery are often steep.  There are very few services beyond basic safety net programs that serve this population. This makes getting individuals enrolled in safety-net programs vital to their survival and success.

The Food Bank of Western Mass. conducts outreach at AISS once a week on their intake day.  Every Thursday, caseworkers bring clients in to complete the food stamp application with Sharleen.  We submit our applications through the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) online Virtual Gateway system, and the official interview is conducted over the phone with the DTA.  Our AISS applications have a success rate of over 90 percent, in large part due to the support of caseworkers and because this a program in which clients choose to participate, and are more likely to follow through.

Since beginning at AISS in 2011, The Food Bank of Western Mass. has expanded efforts to the other counties in our coverage area (Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire Counties).  This year, we started working at the Franklin County Jail with transition planner Rose Mary Mok.  This program is less developed than the one in Hampden County, and because inmates do not opt in, has resulted in a lower approval rate.  Moving forward, we continue to work on new systems that will allow the transition planner to become involved in the interview process. Based on the success of the AISS, this may produce a higher approval rate, ensuring more people who need them receive the SNAP benefits that will allow them to purchase groceries.

In an effort to expand outreach in Berkshire County, The Food Bank approached the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction in Pittsfield. Representatives from The Food Bank have been working with re-entry counselors there to help clients apply for SNAP and to obtain referrals for applications. Since The Food Bank already provides SNAP outreach in Berkshire, Franklin and Hampden Counties, it made sense to expand to the fourth in our coverage area. The Hampshire County Jail re-integration manager and case manager were very interested in The Food Bank’s proposed SNAP outreach and, as a result, we will conduct our first outreach session there this October. As of October, we will be providing after-incarceration support services in all four counties in Western Mass.

Many of our SNAP clients are part of underserved yet eligible populations, especially former inmates. Developing working relationships between correctional facility staff and The Food Bank is essential to the success of our efforts to reach this group. The communities we are serving vary in landscape and culture; some are urban while others are rural. This dichotomy is reflected in the diversity of the clients we serve. This also means that caseworkers’ and clients’ needs can vary. But the goal remains the same. That’s why being flexible and continuing to work on ways to streamline the SNAP application process has been a valuable and ongoing effort as The Food Bank continues to expand SNAP outreach throughout Western Massachusetts.

(From left: Ian Jakus, a former NYCAHH AmeriCorps VISTA with The Food Bank of Western Mass., and Rose Mary Mok, Franklin County Jail transition planner.)

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