The Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University has been awarded a $3.5 million contract from the state to expand a community outreach program designed to improve access to state food and health care benefits.

The hunger initiative, which operates out of Baylor’s School of Social Work, will create 12 regional offices across the state to mobilize outreach for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program, managed by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, provides monthly aid for food and groceries to families whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty limit.

The offices will recruit and train community partners to identify residents who could be eligible for the program and to guide them to the state’s online application portal, Your Texas Benefits.

The goal of the program is to boost the number of access points to apply for benefits, which would help lower the number of residents facing food insecurity. In Texas, 18.5 percent of households do not have reliable access to three meals a day, compared with 14.7 percent of U.S. households, according to statistics gathered by the hunger initiative.

Only about 60 percent of the families who are eligible for SNAP benefits currently utilize the program, said Kathy Krey, director of research for the hunger initiative.

“It’s not acceptable for Texans to be hungry in 2013, because as a state we have plenty of resources to feed everyone,” Krey said. “Hunger is not a resource issue, it’s an access issue, so we believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that we can 

Krey will spearhead research and data gathering for the outreach partnership, monitoring what community partners and marketing strategies are the most effective in encouraging people to apply. The group hopes the program will become a best-practices model for other states to follow in addressing hunger, health care and poverty issues.

“Historically, all of these different sectors have done this work independently of each other,” said Jeremy Everett, executive director of the Texas Hunger Initiative. “Our belief is that one entity is not going to be able to end hunger or poverty, that it’s going to take all of us working together as a state, as a nation and as a local community. This is a way where we can all share the load.”

The outreach program is targeting 1,100 community partners statewide, which could include groups like churches, schools, nonprofit agencies and food pantries. Everett said he would like to see computer stations at Walmart, H-E-B 
and Kroger where shoppers could apply for benefits online.

Community partners

The Texas Hunger Initiative also is partnering with the Texas Association of Community Health Centers to recruit health clinics, like Waco’s Family Health Center, as another access point to apply for benefits.

Using community groups also could help target families who may not be aware that they qualify for assistance or who are leery of going to state offices to seek benefits.

“I certainly think that there are certain points of access that we’ve had as a state to these programs in the past where people might not feel like they’re treated very respectfully, or they might not understand the system and how to navigate it,” Everett said.

The state health commission created the Your Texas 
Benefits site in 2011 as a quicker and more convenient way for residents to apply for state assistance programs, including SNAP, Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. About a third of the applications for those programs now are submitted online, health and human services spokeswoman Linda Edwards Gockel said.

Last year, the agency kicked off a six-month pilot program to build a network of community partners like churches and schools to guide residents to the portal and to assist them in applying for benefits. There currently are 73 registered community partners, plus 176 groups in the pipeline to join the network.

After the pilot program ended in September, the office sent out an RFP (request for proposal) seeking an independent party to expand the effort.

“Applying for services can be daunting for a lot of people, so it makes sense for them to get help in a convenient and familiar setting, from people that they trust,” Gockel said.

The Texas Hunger Initiative will create regional offices this year in Waco, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Lubbock, El Paso, Tyler, McAllen, San Angelo and Amarillo.

Texas Impact, an interfaith network that tackles social justice issues, has signed on to provide volunteers to staff the regional offices through an AmeriCorps VISTA grant. Part of the funding from the state will cover matching funds required to utilize the 
VISTA volunteers.