By Stacy Wilbur
Sometimes after an especially long day of working at the Edward M. Kennedy Health Center in Great Brook Valley, Lisandra Rodriguez de Pagan, needs her spirits buoyed, so she spends her down time sharing the highlights of her day with her husband and three children.
For the most part, it’s Lisandra who is raising spirits in her role as a SNAP Outreach Worker to the Latino community for Project Bread.
For the nearly two years in Worcester, Lisandra has headed up a special project called “Strengthening Latino Families” aimed at enrolling Latino families in SNAP, which stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Funded by a prestigious grant from the USDA through the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, this project is a pilot program in Worcester and Chelsea, aimed at uncovering the reasons why Latinos are the largest group most at risk for food-insecurity and also the group least likely to apply for SNAP benefits.
“Latinos face many unique barriers with regard to SNAP,” said Lisandra, reviewing the stack of paperwork on her desk with a sigh. “These include language barriers, cultural differences, citizenship concerns, and a general mistrust of government.” Continued Lisandra: “So we begin with a friendly conversation, and I try to tease out their worries and put them to rest. Once they learn how the program can help their families eat a more healthy diet, they are much more open to applying.”
And the benefits of SNAP for low-income Latinos are significant.
SNAP enables families to purchase healthy food for themselves and their children. The benefits come in the form of an EBT card (no more paper stamps), which looks like a credit card and can be used at most supermarkets. EBT stands for “electronic benefits transfer” and that’s exactly how the cards work: the client’s SNAP benefits are electronically transferred to the card each month to help them add fresh produce, eggs, milk, fish, and other healthy items to their grocery cart.
With 660,000 people at risk for hunger in the Massachusetts, it’s particularly important to take advantage of this program.
“But many Latinos are ashamed,” says Lisandra. “They don’t want to ask for a handout. They don’t understand that, as taxpayers, they are entitled to this assistance. And some families I speak to don’t realize that they are eligible – or that, even if they are not eligible, that their children may be.”
“My job,” continued Lisandra, “is to create a safe place for parents to ask questions and think about their decisions. I tell them that it is important to take care of their family’s health first, and that studies show us that a healthier diet contributes to their children getting better grades in school and to lower rates of diabetes and hypertension.”
As a result, the Latino community has embraced Lisandra as a trusted resource and advocate on their behalf. In many places, she is affectionately known as the “The Food Stamp Lady.”
“Hunger is a major health crisis hurting families in Worcester, as well as across the state,” says U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern, a long-time advocate for food-insecure people.
In recognition of this problem, Project Bread, the state’s leading antihunger organization, has partnered with the Office of Congressman McGovern, the Office of the Mayor, the Worcester Advisory Food and Active Living Policy Council, along with local health and community centers, to take action.
To get started on resolving the crisis, Project Bread and its partners began a marketing outreach campaign aimed at the Latino community, promoting the importance of receiving SNAP benefits. The campaign included bilingual pamphlets, which were produced and distributed to targeted locations, including Compare Foods, the Worcester Public Schools Parent Resource Center, as well as health and social service centers, and the unemployment office.
Project Bread outreach workers also worked closely with local employers and unions to encourage their employees and members to take advantage of SNAP and many employers put notices in paycheck envelopes.
In Worcester, the project now includes outreach workers like Lisandra in health centers and social service agencies throughout the city, including the Edward M. Kennedy Health Center, the Family Health Center, WIC, the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network Center (PSNNC), and the Main South Community Development Corporation (see sidebar for hours).
At the Family Health Center, Marta Campos is another such “Food Stamp Lady.”
Since 2010, Marta has been helping Latino families apply for SNAP, processing about 15 applications a month. Campos attributes the increase to the marketing campaign, the caring of the counselors, and the extended hours. The health center is open five days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., as well as Saturdays and holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Campos says that the extended hours allow people who work (sometimes more than one job) to come in during non-work hours and get the counseling and assistance they need.
“SNAP makes such a difference in people’s lives,” Campos said. “I recently had an elderly diabetic couple come in to thank me for our help because they were able to have better quality food on their table.”
Since outreach began through “Strengthening Latino Families,” the Food Stamp Ladies have processed approximately 700 SNAP applications and have provided an additional 800 people with information and assistance on SNAP in Worcester.
Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline, the only comprehensive hunger resource in Massachusetts, has also seen an increase of calls from Worcester. The hotline, which receives an average of 47,000 calls a year, has observed a 61 percent increase in calls from Worcester between September 2009 to September 2010.
Although “Strengthening Latino Families” comes to an end this October, Project Bread will continue its outreach to Latinos in the Worcester community through collaboration with its partners.
“It is very important to us to carry on the work we began in Worcester,” said Noreen Kelly, Director of Community Initiatives at Project Bread.
“We will continue to have an outreach coordinator in the community and distribute marketing materials to promote SNAP.”
Lisandra is one “Food Stamp Lady” who is heartened to hear this: “My clients appreciate the customer service I provide to them and are relieved to know that I am here to help.”
Want to Apply for SNAP?
Visit one of the health centers or social service agencies below for SNAP application assistance in Spanish and English.
Edward M. Kennedy Health Center ( at Great Brook Valley)
19 Tacoma St.
Worcester, MA 01605
Friday: 9:00 A.M. – 1:30 P.M.
Family Health Center
26 Queen Street,
Worcester, MA 01610
Monday to Friday: 8:00 A.M. – 8:00 P.M.
Saturday & Holidays: 9:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M.
Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network Center (PSNNC)
301 Pleasant Street
Worcester, MA 01609-2023
Tuesdays: 1:00 P.M. – 7:00 P.M.
Main South Community Development Corporation
875 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01610
Wednesdays: 11:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M. and by appointment