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Not all families and individuals who are eligible to participate in food assistance programs actually receive benefits. In Washington, only 68 percent of people who are eligible for the Basic Food Program (food stamps) participate in the program,(1) and only 12 percent of children eligible for free or reduced price school meals receive free meals through the Summer Food Service Program.(2) There are many reasons that eligible families and individuals might not participate in food assistance programs. To begin with, programs need to be available in local communities, and program location and hours of operation must meet the needs of working families. In addition, families need to be aware of programs and to have accurate information about program benefits, eligibility guidelines and how to apply.
Children in families with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive free school meals. School districts may charge a co-pay for children in families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Eliminating that co-pay can greatly increase participation in school meal programs. Washington became the first state in the nation to eliminate a 30-cent co-pay for school breakfast in 2006. As a result, participation in the School Breakfast Program in Washington increased by 26 percent or 780,000 meals.(3)
Navigating the food assistance system can be daunting, and finding information on all the available resources and application procedures can be a challenge. Most food assistance programs have different eligibility guidelines and separate applications. Families and individuals may have to make several appointments or travel to several locations to apply for and/or receive benefits. Even when eligible families and individuals receive the maximum amount of food assistance benefits, they still may have trouble putting enough food on the table.
To help families and individuals connect to existing food and health insurance programs, WithinReach launched ParentHelp123.(4) At the ParentHelp123 Web site, Washington families can screen themselves for potential eligibility for state and federal food and health insurance programs, and complete and print program applications. They can also search by zip code for local resources such as food banks, summer meal programs, breastfeeding support, and services for children with special needs.
Food insecurity leads to poor health. Physicians, dietitians, dentists, nurses and other health professionals can include routine assessment of food security status as a standard part of medical care, and clinics and practices can improve the health of their patients by establishing referral systems for food assistance programs.(5) Health and social service professionals statewide can contact the Family Food Hotline, a program information and referral hotline, to connect their clients with available food resources.(6) More than 300 families who called the hotline in 2006 reported that they learned about the service from a social or health care professional.
Clients who visit the Columbia Valley Community Health WIC Program in Chelan are routinely asked about food security. Clients who are food insecure are referred to local food banks, encouraged to apply for food stamps, and receive assistance in filling-out a food stamps application. Low-income families are more likely to use the Basic Food Program when they can get information in their native language, talk to someone about eligibility requirements before the application, and have help organizing the necessary documents.