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CityFixer

This Chicago Startup Is Easing the Headache of Applying for Food Stamps

In five minutes, mRelief helps users learn whether they qualify, and how to claim benefits.

Reuters/Jim Young

Across America, there are 13 billion dollars in unclaimed food stamp benefits. This doesn’t mean that food insecurity is on the decline; instead, around 9 million people eligible for food stamps are not claiming their benefits, according to the latest data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A Chicago-based startup, mRelief, is trying to change these numbers with a tech platform that starts with 10 simple questions.

The platform aims to cut through some of the tedious logistics of applying for assistance. They’re numerous. “In Illinois, food stamp applicants need to fill out an 18-page application or sit through a 90-minute phone call [with the Illinois Department of Human Services] and submit as many as 10 required documents,” explains the mRelief co-founder, Rose Afriyie. In other states, prospective applicants might spend hours at the public aid office. Afriyie and her team developed a platform built on web and text messaging that users can access via phone or computer, starting with a five-minute questionnaire that determines eligibility for benefits.

The biggest challenge in claiming food stamps, according to Afriyie, lies in the task of finding out if you qualify. “The amount of time spent on just figuring out if you are eligible can take up so many hours that many [people] can’t be bothered to go through the next stage of applying,” she says. The questions on the mRelief platform vary based on different thresholds for eligibility, but users are asked to provide their zip code, the household’s monthly income, and answer questions like, “Does your household include a member who is receiving disability benefits?” or “How many people buy and cook food with you (don't include yourself)?”

If prospective applicants are eligible, mRelief helps them discover the fastest way to apply, Afriyie says. Shortcuts include interviewing via phone—though the wait time is, on average, about 58 minutes. To ease that hurdle, mRelief ran a pilot program last year in which users relied on a bot that pinged them when their call was answered. Since launching in Chicago in 2014, mRelief has helped over 100,000 families across 42 states secure food stamps.

The founders anticipated potential accessibility challenges, designing a platform that’s web-based and compatible with text messages—meaning users don’t necessarily need a smartphone (or any phone at all). Working with local agencies and establishing community partnerships, says Afriyie, is another way to maximize outreach. In Chicago, mRelief partners with the Chicago Public Library System to reach homeless families, in particular, she says. “They can use the library’s free infrastructure to fill out the web-based form online.”

The mRelief platform includes a simple questionnaire. (mRelief)

mRelief is currently working closely with local agencies in Chicago, New York, and Alaska, with hopes of increasing local partnerships across other states. By working with Code for Anchorage and the city of Anchorage in Alaska, the startup has helped local users claim over 250,000 dollars in food stamp benefits. “Alaska, in particular, has an extremely frustrating process,” Afriyie says, with applicants having to complete a 28-page document that they must submit via mail. The startup found that around 50 percent of users in Alaska were eligible after checking their status using mRelief.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and its services may face some challenges in the new Trump era. SNAP is tied to the Farm Bill, an incredibly complex and large document overseeing agriculture and nutrition issues, which will be up for revision in 2018. But officials in Maine and Arkansas are already preparing to ask the Trump administration for approval to restrict the use of food stamps to buy certain junk food (a restriction the Obama administration opposed). And Trump has been historically vocal about his belief that benefits programs are rife with fraud, although the USDA data indicates that SNAP fraud is very low, with much of the blame on retailers, not recipients.

Whether the program is in for a complete overhaul is still uncertain, but it’s certainly something Afriyie and her team are concerned about. “We’re trying our best to keep our services as open as possible,” she says. “We still need to do more research on what is happening right now and what changes we can expect on a state-by-state basis, but we will continue to invest in strategies where we reach the largest number of people.”

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