Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, AmeriCorps members across the country participate in a national day of service. This year at the Institute for Family Health, our Community HealthCorps team partnered with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH) to do SNAP and WIC outreach in Corona, Queens. Individuals or families that qualify for SNAP receive a monthly credit to buy fruits, vegetables, and other grocery items that would otherwise be unaffordable. Many farmers markets now accept these benefits, increasing access to fresh, local produce for low-income residents. WIC serves a similar purpose, with a special goal of improving birth outcomes and childhood nutrition by supplementing the diets of pregnant women, as well as women and their young children. Since many of our Community HealthCorps members work with pregnant women and diabetic or pre-diabetic patients, this project was quite relevant to our service positions. In New York City, many people are eligible for government assistance programs that can increase their purchasing power for food, but these services are often under-utilized. Our goal was to publicize free eligibility screenings for SNAP and WIC by distributing fliers to shoppers and passersby in a low-income neighborhood.
When I learned about our MLK Jr. Day of Service project, my initial reaction was skepticism. As a relatively shy person, I have always been wary of canvassing and outreach projects, feeling too uncomfortable to approach or solicit strangers. I thought of the times I'd actively avoided canvassers in the subway station or on the street, taking a different route to steer clear of any interaction. I wondered how effective our approach would be to increase registration for SNAP and WIC. On Monday, January 19th, our group arrived at our service site in Corona, after enjoying dim sum together in Flushing. I was posted inside a local supermarket, given a stack of fliers, and assigned to a Spanish-speaking teammate. After watching my partner give fliers to several people with an explanation of the program, I realized that many of the local shoppers were genuinely interested in registering for SNAP. Very few people walked away without accepting a flier; in fact, most people thanked us and even asked questions about the eligibility screening. After spending an hour in the store distributing fliers and directing people to get screened, the line at the SNAP information table was winding around the shopping aisle. Rather than avoiding us as I had expected, the shoppers seemed eager for more information about the program. I started to feel more comfortable handing out fliers as I realized we were offering information about a service that people actually needed and wanted. And what more appropriate place to spread awareness about food assistance programs than in a grocery store?
This outreach project had greater implications for my service position than I had initially anticipated. As a service member at Bronx Health REACH, I help coordinate the Healthy Schools NY program through the NY State Department of Health. This involves maintaining relationships with 22 public schools in the Bronx to support them in their wellness initiatives. Nutrition is a huge part of our work, especially since most students at our schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and live in food-insecure homes. For many students, school lunch may be the only meal they eat each day. Or, they may be accustomed to eating fast food and unhealthy snacks at home, which are often the most affordable and convenient options. As a result, a large proportion of students in the schools we work with are overweight or obese. Since I started my position in September, I have gained insight into the many barriers to healthy eating that students and their families face. Even if people qualify for SNAP, there are few outlets in their neighborhoods where healthy food can be purchased at a reasonable price. However, if people have never heard of SNAP or don't know how to apply, purchasing healthy food becomes even less feasible. I had assumed that most of the students at our schools benefit from SNAP at home, but I began to wonder how many of their families knew nothing about such programs or how to register. These problems ran through my mind as we handed out fliers about SNAP eligibility screening on Martin Luther King Jr. day, and I realized how raising awareness about these programs can be a critical part of improving childhood health and nutrition.
Rachel Manning is a Community HealthCorps member with Bronx Health REACH.