Faces of food insecurity: The caseworkers

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The Dukes County Social Services Department, from left: Kelly Gallant, program assistant, Esther Laiacona, case worker, and Sarah Kuh, coordinator as well as director of Vineyard Health Care Access Program. — Gabrielle Mannino

This is part of an ongoing series about food insecurity. In the following piece, we take a look at the individuals working to combat the Island-wide issue.

 

Throughout this series, we’ve heard a lot about SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps. SNAP provides a monthly stipend card for qualified individuals that can be used at grocery stores and local food stands. Hundreds of Islanders benefit from the program, but these cards don’t redeem themselves, and beneficiaries can’t sign up overnight. It’s a process, and it takes a lot of paperwork, attention to detail, and advocacy.

So how does it all happen? Meet the caseworkers. They’re the ones working behind the scenes on behalf of those who need a hand.

SNAP on Martha’s Vineyard works under the administration system of the Dukes County Social Services Department. About five years ago, they joined a state-funded program called SNAP Community Outreach, which enables SNAP to partner with the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), allowing them to utilize more resources. SNAP outreach partner programs are administered by UMass Medical School under Commonwealth Medical.

“We’re contracted to help people submit applications and assist them in the application process,” Sarah Kuh, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Health Care Access Program, said. “We help with phone interviews, follow-up applications, and benefit recertifications to help people prove they’re still qualified.”

According to Kuh, in 2017, the office helped 200 individuals with their SNAP applications. The office also helps with fuel assistance. In 2017, they helped 102 people with their fuel assistance applications.

The office is located at 9 Airport Road in Edgartown. If you go, you’ll likely meet Esther Laiacona, the county’s SNAP coordinator. She’s in the office managing phone calls, walk-ins, and paperwork to ensure individuals have access to the services they need.

According to Laiacona, in summer, she sees three to four people a day, but as we move into the offseason and jobs slow down, it’s more like five or six people a day.

“People walk in with all kinds of requests,” Laiacona said. “They ask about applying for SNAP and how to supplement their current situation due to crisis or injury or homelessness. There’s a myriad of reasons why people might call.”

Laiacona starts out by providing a list of the core benefits: SNAP, fuel assistance, utility assistance, cash assistance for disabled adults and low household incomes, affordable child care, and WIC (women, infants, and children).

Laiacona also helps people work through problems with their benefits,whether those ended abruptly, they need more, or something significant in their life changes and they need to notify the DTA.

“I give every client as much information as I can,” Laiacona said. “I make sure they’re educated on other food resources they can qualify for. I write letters to the Food Pantry, make sure they’re plugged into communities, know the Mobile Market schedule, and are familiar with the service program at the Council on Aging.”

Laiacona said people are generally aware of the services available, but there’s a learning curve with some of the newer initiatives. The Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), for example, is fairly new. It’s authorized and funded by the state, and immediately enrolls SNAP households in its benefits. It opens farmers markets, mobile markets, farm stands, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs to the list of qualified SNAP retailers. HIP beneficiaries also receive $1 for each dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables. There’s a monthly cap based on household size.

According to Laiacona, other services people are generally less familiar with are the Council on Aging, winter warming shelters, and community suppers.

“There’s a whole new population going to those suppers,” Laiacona said. “There’s a lot of people in their 50s who aren’t plugged in to what the Council on Aging can provide.”

She said individuals generally leave her office having learned something new.

“It’s a lot,” she said. “It’s a lot to wrap your head around. Every t has to be crossed and i has to be dotted so there’s no mistakes — so that people can get the services they need and not lose those benefits.”

According to Kuh, oftentimes there’s a Catch-22 for people like herself and Laiacona who are trying to help.

“Not to generalize, but there’s a set of people at a high risk. Homelessness, mental health, or substance abuse aren’t uncommon among applicants. Important documents like a birth certificate are hard to find. A lot of the job is coaching people on how to do it, and helping them do it. Esther is really good and knows the system.”

“My motto is there’s a solution to every problem,” Laiacona said. “If there’s a snafu, I’ll make call after call after call.”

As a SNAP outreach partner, the office has a liaison at the DTA in Hyannis.

“We have resources who are calling the shots,” Laiacona said. “They’re in charge, and can help us get through difficult challenges that might occur. You can’t get benefits without the right documentation, and we have to find a way to help get people through it.”

Kuh said they’re fortunate to have become a SNAP community outreach partner, otherwise it would be difficult to successfully assist individuals at the level they do.

“The DTA helps us cut through the red tape,” Kuh said. “One of the toughest challenges is sitting on the phone and not knowing which button to push to get the right person on the line. A lot of people give up and lose their benefits. It’s our job that we navigate the system with and on behalf of these people.”

Laiacona said she works with clients of all ages, ranging from 0 to 90. “No one leaves here without hope or without an action to take,” she said. She spoke to the process of obtaining a SNAP card. “First you do a phone interview with someone from the DTA,” she said. “Once you do the interview, you get approved for emergency assistance and get sent a card.”

The card takes about 7 to 10 business days to arrive. The initial process of applying to SNAP can take up to 30 days, according to Laiacona. “It can feel like a lifetime for families,” she said.

The maximum monthly benefit for an individual is $198, and for a family it’s up to $504.

“We look at expenses, and that determines benefits,” Kuh said. “If you’re not paying rent, your SNAP benefits are lower. If you are, your benefits are higher.”

“It all depends on the situation,” Laiacona said.

Not everything is covered by SNAP. For example, recipients cannot buy liquor, lottery tickets, tobacco, or hot food. You can get things like deli and fish.

According to Kuh, there’s a synergy between health care access and social services — their clients are the same.

“I’m an advocate,” Laiacona said. “People need to know someone’s in their corner who believes in the possibility of their life. Yes, you’re here for benefits, but this isn’t the end of your story. I’ll fight to the end for everybody.”

“In our community, in our state, and in our country, there’s no excuse for anyone being hungry,” Kuh said. “There’s enough wealth in this county that it should be a source at the local, state, and national level. At the end of the day, it’s a shame there are people who still don’t have enough to eat.”