Deciding between paying to keep a roof overhead and keeping healthy food on the table isn't a choice people should have to make.
New York state has made changes to and renamed its food stamp program. Gone is the food stamp program, with new options and benefits in its place. Now there is a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funded through the Nutrition Outreach and Education Program, also known as NOEP.
According to Brooke Barone, NOEP coordinator in Chautauqua County, NOEP assists hungry families and individuals to obtain SNAP benefits. Through free and confidential pre-screening, as well as application assistance, Barone can help eligible households receive the maximum allotment of SNAP benefits.
"It's a needs-based entitlement program," Barone said. "It is not welfare of public assistance. Basically, anyone that meets the program eligibility will receive the monthly benefits. There's no waiting list or no limit to how many people can apply."
Barone is employed by Cattaraugus Community Action Incorporated, an organization in Salamanca. The organization received the NOEP grant through Hunger Solutions, New York. Barone has been working in Chautauqua County since December to help people become enrolled in the program. In December, she said she helped 12 people go through pre-screenings, with seven filling out applications. She predicts the numbers will be triple this month.
In order to spread the word about this program, Barone works throughout Chautauqua County, offering presentations and outreach at various food pantries, businesses and organizations. She meets with lower-income families and seniors, offering pre-screening to learn whether they are qualified for the SNAP program. She also is working to erase "food stamps" from people's vocabulary.
"The name 'food stamp,' they are trying to eliminate it completely, basically to release the old stigma of what was food stamps and kind of re-do the whole program," Barone said. "What used to be paper coupons for food stamps is now done on a debit card. It's a lot more discreet, a lot more private, so individuals don't have to feel so called-out in the middle of the store."
As the NOEP coordinator in the county, Barone is partnered with the Department of Social Services. She can help people through the pre-screening process, either in her office or in people's homes. She also will help to obtain all necessary paperwork to apply for the SNAP program, as well as work with the Department of Social Services to get the SNAP card mailed out.
Referrals into the SNAP program come to Barone from throughout the county. Additionally, people interested in the program can self-refer to see if they qualify.
"We have a relationship with the Office of the Aging. We have a relationship with Catholic Charities. I have met with the Department of Social Services, so we're on the same page," Barone said. "Being a new program in Chautauqua County, we can assist them and they can assist us."
The SNAP program also has some benefits that the food stamp program does not. For example, Barone said SNAP covers Slim Fast, NutriSystem, Ensure, Boost, Meals on Wheels, baby formula, PediaLyte, Pediasure, fresh produce and seeds so people can plant their own gardens. On the other hand, SNAP does not cover heated ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores.
"It also can be used in the farmers' market, which I know is a big push, the fresh produce that is going around in the area. A lot of the food providers, the vendors, they are taking SNAP now as well," Barone said.
Additionally, Barone said the program is a benefit to Chautauqua County in other ways.
"Every $5 spent in benefits actually doubles to nearly $10 in local economic growth," she said. "So, definitely, it's helping the community as well."
SNAP benefits range from $16 per month all the way up to $700 per month, depending on each individual's circumstances. Barone said income guidelines have been raised, so people should still go through pre-screening to see if they qualify. And, people who are enrolled in the SNAP program are automatically eligible for other programs, such as HEAP, regardless of how much money they qualify for under SNAP.
"It doesn't matter if you have a house, a car, a savings account or live with people, none of that is a deterrent or a determining factor," Barone said.
There is no cash-back option for the SNAP debit card. Barone emphasized that the program is specifically geared toward nutrition.
"The SNAP program goes monthly. Every month, the money goes onto the EBT debit card," she said. "With SNAP, there is no cash back. It is strictly the seeds, the sandwiches, the fresh produce, the formulas. There's no cash back; it is strictly used for food purposes and nutritional purposes. If they have cash assistance, that's something completely separate that I don't handle. There's no beer, there's no cigarettes, no toilet paper."
Aside from helping people enroll in the SNAP program for the first time, Barone is also able to perform recertifications for those who are either currently enrolled for or need to re-apply for food stamps or SNAP. She said if individuals still have their food stamp card, benefits can be placed on the existing card.
Barone said there is no pressure to apply for SNAP once individuals have gone through the pre-screening process, which only takes a few minutes and can be completed over the phone. She said everyone should take advantage of the pre-screening process, especially working parents and senior citizens.
"The biggest thing is, there are those who are reluctant, especially the seniors," she said. "They say that they don't want to take money from other people, they feel that they've never been on the system and they don't want to do it now. This is an entitlement program. You're not on welfare; they're not on public assistance. It's just something where you're meeting the income guidelines, the money is already there, the government has set up a bank account and the money is there, so, why not utilize the benefits that you're entitled to, that you've worked for?"
To contact Barone, call 244-7337. She also accepts both walk-ins and appointments at the Chadakoin Building, 120 W. Third St. in Jamestown.