Rose Afriyie knows firsthand what it’s like to be a beneficiary of food programs. Afriyie, who grew up in the Gun Hill public housing projects in the Bronx in the 1980s, tells SELF that food benefits helped her mother feed her family while attending nursing school. Money that would have otherwise been spent on groceries could go to books, enabling Afriyie’s mom to “unlock economic opportunity for our family,” Afriyie explains. “I think that’s fundamentally what food programs are about: being able to unlock not just food in the near term, but also capital that would otherwise be used on food and can now then be devoted to other [things].”
Today, Afriyie is the cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit mRelief, which helps people access benefits from the nation’s largest food program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). About 40 million people receive SNAP benefits in an average month, according to the USDA. This year, emergency SNAP benefits have helped families experiencing food insecurity survive the pandemic-prompted economic crisis. But major accessibility barriers prevent SNAP from benefiting as many people as it potentially could, and the program is, in several ways, falling short of people’s needs. By mRelief’s estimate, about $13 billion in food stamp benefits go unclaimed every year.
The function of mRelief is, essentially, to supercharge SNAP by increasing the reach and efficiency of the program; according to mRelief, the organization has already unlocked $190 million in SNAP benefits for over 425,000 families over the last decade. But Afriyie and her colleagues are also dedicated to making the experience of seeking and securing SNAP benefits more decent. “The process for signing up for social services historically has been really challenging; it has never really been the most dignified process,” Zareena Meyn, director of partnerships and development at mRelief, tells SELF. “Our mission is to transform access to social services for the inherent dignity of all people.”
Technology is crucial in fulfilling this mission, as it has the potential to both “bring the SNAP enrollment process into the current century, and make the process more dignified,” Meyn explains. The typical process of applying for SNAP to find out if you even qualify varies based on the state agency, but is generally frustrating and time-consuming—requiring, on average, a 20-page application or 90-minute phone call, plus submitting as many as 10 documents, according to mRelief. mRelief offers a digital screening tool and screening via text messaging that make it easier for people to quickly find out if they are eligible for SNAP. If the screening shows that you are likely eligible, the organization will shepherd you through the actual application process. For people already enrolled in SNAP, mRelief is pushing for funding to develop mobile EBT, so that people can rely on a digital backup if they misplace their card. And, in the wake of the pandemic—which has both increased the demand for SNAP and made traditional in-person enrollment assistance impossible—mRelief is lightening the load for the SNAP case workers who are now doing their jobs remotely with a new online platform that streamlines the client enrollment process.
SELF spoke to Afriyie and Meyn about the powerful role of SNAP, the inefficiencies and indignities in the program, and how mRelief is working to maximize the program’s potential and improve the experience of its beneficiaries.
I love your choice to make an impact by improving on a program that is already in place, and has the capacity to help a lot of people but is not totally optimized. How did you decide to focus on SNAP?
Rose Afriyie: The key thing here is being really data driven. When we first co-founded mRelief, we had a lot of social services on our site, bolstered by this saying by Audre Lorde that people don’t live single-issue lives. We had dental assistance, rental assistance, all types of programs. But it was really difficult to get a sense of how people fared at the end of the day in all of these social services journeys.
For the latest news and updates, follow us and if you like our efforts, consider sharing this story with your friends, this will encourage us to bring more exciting updates for you.