ENID, Okla. — Oklahoma Department of Human Services is working with public schools and nonprofits in hopes of closing the gap between Oklahomans who qualify for and those who actually receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

According to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, about 17 percent of Oklahomans — about 608,000 people — live in poverty, and roughly one in four children in the state suffer food insecurity.

The gap in benefit access

Despite the prevalence of hunger in Oklahoma, roughly 20 percent of people eligible for federally-funded SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, don't take advantage of the program.

"We believe 80 percent of people who are eligible to receive SNAP are receiving SNAP," said Debra Martin, communications manager for Oklahoma State Department of Human Services (OKDHS), the state agency that administers SNAP. 

Nationwide, about 17 percent of people eligible for SNAP do not access their benefits, and only 42 percent of eligible seniors are enrolled in the program, according to figures provided by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Most SNAP recipients are children, elderly, or persons with disabilities, including disabled veterans, Martin said. In fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30, 825,583 Oklahomans received SNAP benefits. More than 34,000 of those were people older than 65.

That would leave approximately 206,000 Oklahomans eligible for SNAP who aren't receiving their benefits, according to the OKDHS figures.

Sara Gorman, Garfield County director for OKDHS, said it's uncertain how many eligible SNAP recipients aren't accessing their benefits in the county, particularly among the local homeless population.

SNAP eligibility and application

SNAP recipients must be U.S. citizens or legal residents and must meet income guidelines set by the federal government, ranging in Oklahoma from an annual income of $15,444 for a household of one person up to $53,157 per year for a household of eight people. The median monthly income for SNAP recipients in Oklahoma last year was $1,242.

The program also requires able-bodied adults without dependents, ages 18 to 50, to be employed or participate in job training or education at least 20 hours per week.

Gorman said SNAP recipients can be in the program for up to three months without meeting the work requirement, and that provision resets every three years. Exemptions to the work requirement also are available for a variety of reasons, including recipients who are pregnant, undergoing drug or alcohol treatment, disability or treatment for an illness that prevents them from working.

The average SNAP benefit is $4 per person per day, or $1.33 per meal, according to OKDHS figures.

Gorman said that amount is meant to be supplemental, but it may keep some eligible people — particularly seniors — from applying for the benefit.

"A lot of them may only get $15 in food stamps per month and may not think it's worth it," Gorman said. "But, you don't have to use the benefits every month and they add up, so if you let it build up it can really help with some of those staples you need."

Gorman said the best way to determine eligibility and benefit amount is to apply for SNAP, which can be completed online at okdhslive.org. If an applicant is unable to access the form online, they can go to the local DHS office at 2405 Mercer Drive, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and apply in person.

Applicants must provide proof of identity, their most recent 30 days of income verification and a social security number for every member of the household applying for benefits.

Closing the gap in access

In hopes of closing the gap between Oklahomans eligible for SNAP and those receiving benefits, OKDHS currently is piloting two programs to reach more SNAP beneficiaries and streamline the application process.

Gorman said the Garfield County DHS office last October implemented "First Contact Resolution," an initiative to provide same-day help completing SNAP applications.

She said the fastest way for people to complete the process is to apply online, followed within one business day by a follow-up call from the local DHS office to resolve any questions on the application.

Applicants also can take photos of any needed documents and email them to DHS, rather than having to scan or hand-deliver paperwork.

Gorman said the county DHS office still offers paper SNAP applications and walk-in service, and DHS workers aim to complete the client's application and resolve any issues during that first walk-in session.

"If someone walks in to the office, they see a worker right then and there so we don't have to try to contact them later to arrange an interview," Gorman said. "We're trying to get the benefits into the hands of the clients sooner, if possible."

First Contact Resolution still is a pilot program, but Gorman said OKDHS is working to implement the program statewide.

OKDHS also recently launched SNAP in Schools, a partnership with Oklahoma State Department of Education and the nonprofit Hunger Free Oklahoma.

The pilot program allows families to apply for SNAP benefits while enrolling their children in school, giving OKDHS access to more low-income families and streamlining the application process.

Martin said OKDHS hopes to close the gap between SNAP eligible and enrolled Oklahomans by five percent over the next two years.

Closing that gap could have a significant impact in school districts like Enid Public Schools, where almost three out of four children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

SNAP in Schools currently is being tested in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Tahlequah public schools, but Martin said OKDHS hopes to roll out the program statewide over the next two years.

Stretching resources

While SNAP benefits give recipients the ability to shop for groceries in commercial stores, the program also helps nonprofit food pantries stretch their resources.

Loaves and Fishes of Northwest Oklahoma collects and distributes about 70,000 pounds of food each month to an average of more than 650 low-income households.

"It does help us stretch our resources if people have food coming in from other places than just Loaves and Fishes," said Katie Long, assistant director at Loaves and Fishes of Northwest Oklahoma.

She said some Loaves and Fishes clients have the misconception that if they enrolled in SNAP they no longer would be able to shop at the food resource center. Families can enroll in SNAP and still use Loaves and Fishes as needed, she said, and SNAP helps give those families more stability than relying solely on the nonprofit food resource center.

"We are open to the public 12 hours a week, so if they're not available those 12 hours we can't help them," Long said. "But, if we can help them get signed up for SNAP, it really increases their access to food."

Getting more people enrolled in SNAP also frees up resources to help other members of the community who might not qualify for SNAP benefits, but may still need help addressing food insecurity, Long said.

Seniors, in particular, seem to utilize Loaves and Fishes but not fully access their SNAP benefits, Long said.

"So many of our seniors worked hard all their lives, and so many of them served our country to take care of us, and now it's their time to be taken care of," Long said, "and SNAP is one of the ways their basic needs can be met."

For more information on SNAP benefits and eligibility visit tinyurl.com/OKSNAP. For more information on or to donate to Loaves and Fishes visit loavesandfishesnwok.org.

Long said Loaves and Fishes currently is particularly in need of donations of baby food and formula, which can be donated at the food resource center at 701 E. Maine.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com.