Mass. Transitional Assistance commissioner meets with local providers
Special to Community Legal Aid
WORCESTER, Mass.—Massachusetts Department of Transitional Services (DTA) Commissioner Jeff McCue met June 1 with the SNAP Coalition, in a collaborative effort to reduce food insecurity across central Massachusetts.
McCue took the opportunity to announce that the DTA’s new unit specializing in the needs of the elderly would soon open in Chelsea, Mass.
While “SNAP” refers to one specific program – the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as “food stamps” – the coalition has come to cover most issues related to food insecurity.
The group's regularly scheduled meetings, which usually take place in the Worcester office of Community Legal Aid (CLA), allow frontline providers of services to local families who are at or near the poverty level to update each other on, and to create strategies to deal with, issues affecting their clients’ ability to meet their daily dietary needs.
A top concern at the meeting was the recently-issued presidential budget, which would dramatically reduce SNAP benefits and other social service programs. Even now, providers noted, it has been impossible to fully meet need.
An ongoing worry is the “SNAP gap,” which refers to the difference between the number of people eligible for SNAP benefits and the number of people actually receiving them. According to data provided by the DTA, that number is more than 750,000 people across the state.
The coalition leaders also discussed with the commissioner tweaks that could be made to the state’s Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), as well as ways to promote it. HIP, which was announced in April, automatically adds money to a person’s benefits for fruits and vegetables purchased at a participating farmers’ market. For example, an elderly person receiving $16 per month in food stamps will, under the program, automatically have $40 extra to spend at participating facilities.
The goal of HIP is both to promote healthy eating and to support local agriculture. However, it has not yet been widely promoted, and, according to Commissioner McCue, a current challenge is that the state has not yet been able to provide payment processing devices to all farmers interested in the program.
In addition, the group discussed ways to ensure that eligible able-bodied adults without dependents (“ABAWDS”), who face the most rigid requirements for food stamps and can only qualify for three months at a time, are able to get assistance when they need it. The providers noted that many ABAWDS, often full-time low-wage workers, believe they are not qualified for assistance, causing them to unnecessarily go without.
The providers also exchanged experience with the commissioner, who urged them to keep him informed of any troubles. A particular problem relates to a lack of language access when calling DTA. McCue took note of this, and also pointed out that the DTA’s mobile phone app does provide access in multiple languages far more easily, a point the frontline providers noted to take to their clients.
Represented in the coalition and at the meeting were CLA, the Worcester County Food Bank, the Central West Justice Center, the UMass SNAP program, Worcester State University, the Worcester Housing Authority, Catholic Charities, the Worcester Community Action Council, the Mustard Seed, Project Bread, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and the Worcester Food Policy Council.