Mary, Jonny and their family
 Virginia and her family

The innovative Online SNAP Referral Pilot program was designed to effectively connect those in need of government food assistance with local Feeding America food banks conducting SNAP benefits outreach and application assistance. The pilot phase of this program proved to be exceedingly efficient, much more so than was originally projected.

The program started with a strikingly simple idea—affordable technology exists through a predominant medium (Google) to enable Feeding America to reach the right person at the right time (a person conducting a search for designated hunger-relief keywords) with the right message—an ad for SNAP application through the nearest food bank (using geotargeting).

SNAP Outreach: a Cornerstone of Feeding America Strategy
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is among the most effective ways to improve food security among low-income households. SNAP helps millions of low-income Americans put food on the table, providing benefits that are timely, targeted, and temporary. The program is targeted at our most vulnerable citizens, predominantly serving households with children, elderly, and disabled members. SNAP benefits phase out as participants get back on their feet, with the average household staying on the program less than a year.

As the largest federal nutrition program, SNAP provides $72 billion in benefits to the more than 45 million people currently enrolled. Yet the SNAP program has the potential and the resources to assist far more low income households. A quarter of individuals who are eligible for SNAP do not currently participate in the program.

While some eligible individuals may not wish to enroll in SNAP, others may not be aware they are eligible or know how to apply for benefits. SNAP outreach is particularly important for underserved populations, like seniors. Seniors participate at a significantly lower rate than other individuals. The participation rate for eligible elderly individuals living alone was 43 percent in FY2010, and even lower for seniors living with other individuals (24 percent).

Feeding America is committed to creating and expanding SNAP awareness and outreach programs. SNAP outreach is typically comprised of education, prescreening, application assistance and document transferal. By addressing these systemic barriers to participation, food banks provide a more comprehensive response to hunger.

Through our nationwide network of food banks, Feeding America is uniquely positioned to categorically help individuals and families enroll and access these critical benefits. According to our research, only 41 percent of the network's client households report receiving SNAP benefits, yet more than 88 percent of the households are estimated to be income eligible. While SNAP participation rates are often underreported, this information supports that many of the families coming to a food pantry or soup kitchen are the same families who are likely eligible for the approximately $4.1 billion in SNAP benefits currently left on the table due to under-participation.

Development of a Highly Effective SNAP Outreach Tool
Through the development of Feeding America’s SNAP awareness strategy, it was discovered that certain hunger-relief related keywords are searched on Google more often than others. With support from the Walmart Foundation, a geotargted Google ad based on the search of certain keywords launched in early January 2013. The original pilot launched in two markets with a high volume of Google searches related to SNAP: Orlando, Florida and Dallas, Texas. 

Immediately the program proved to have a much larger impact than was originally projected. A second wave of markets was added to include three more food banks in rural and mid-sized markets:  Northern Nevada, Nebraska and Cleveland, Ohio. The expansion of the pilot allowed Feeding America to reach more people and further test the demand for this promising outreach program.

Client Follow Up and Effects of the Program

An unexpected result of the referral tool was a collection of client stories. Forty-four percent of all referrals included some kind of explanation of need.  

We found that many of the individuals looking for food assistance online had never been to a pantry before. Of respondents to our follow-up survey, 38 percent had never before received food assistance of any kind. Additionally, nearly a third of respondents were either employed full time (13 percent), part time (16 percent) or temporarily (1 percent).

For the clients we serve, the result of SNAP benefits is more than nutrition assistance. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service Report, SNAP is critical to moving families into long-term food security.

Food is typically the most elastic item in a low-income household’s budget. When relieved of grocery bills, people are better able to pay for other basic necessities—rent or mortgages, medical expenses, utilities and transportation.

As people use their SNAP benefits to purchase more of their food at grocery retailers and farmers' markets, the emergency-level burden on local nonprofit feeding agencies is reduced and the local economy is stimulated. In fact, each dollar invested in SNAP benefits generates $1.79 in local economic activity.

Family Stories: The Promise of SNAP
Please click through the stories to the right from real families in America who depend on SNAP to put food on the table. Together, we can solve hunger.]

Brady Koch blog post

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