Despite rising unemployment figures, applications for food assistance programs were notably flat. A new report from Kansas Appleseed is dissecting what barriers could be contributing to this. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
TOPEKA — A new report examining barriers to food access faced by many southwest Kansans shows that participation in nutrition assistance programs remained flat during the pandemic even though the need for help increased.
The report by the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is focused on food insecurity in Stevens, Seward, Grant, Ford and Finney counties. In these areas, the report indicates, the number of households receiving federal benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program declined slightly while unemployment spiked.
This finding stood out to Martha Terhaar, a new campaign advocate for Kansas Appleseed, because unemployment is directly linked to food insecurity.
“One of the main things you do when you file for unemployment is also apply for food stamps and SNAP benefits,” Terhaar said. “So to not see that correlation happen means, you know, something’s missing, there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.”
The report points to several barriers for receiving these benefits and suggests changes.
Kansas Appleseed defines food insecurity as when someone doesn’t know where the next meal is going to come from. Feeding America estimates that 351,090 people — 120,090 of them children — are facing hunger across Kansas.
Terhaar said there is a high prevalence in these communities of immigrants who are struggling with food insecurity. In the five counties surveyed, immigrants make up about 25% of the population. She said a lack of participation in government programs often can be attributed to discriminatory policies, a lack of trust or confusing regulations.
Federal policy toward immigrants has furthered this dilemma, said Jami Reever, executive director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
“I think about some of the policies that have gone into effect that have not just created barriers but also created a lot of confusion in communities,” Reever said. “As we look at this report, we look at the SNAP caseload, when we compare it to the unemployment rates, it just doesn’t tell the full picture of the misinformation and fear spread through so many communities.”
Other barriers mentioned in the report were shame or stigma around accepting aid, a lack of awareness about available programs and certain eligibility requirements for federal and state aid programs.
To help address these barriers, Kansas Appleseed hosted two focus groups with individuals representing the immigrant community across southwest Kansas. One recommendation from the conversations was incorporating more food from community members’ cultures into school meal programs.
For example, rice and beans of varying types were mentioned repeatedly among different communities.
There was also frequent mention of “informal networks” — family and friends who helped provide food assistance.
“We can talk about state and federal policies, we can talk about local policies, but we can also talk about each other, and what we can do to make sure that no one is going hungry,” Reever said. “I would move mountains to feed my kids to make sure that they had food and no parent is different from me. We all want the best for kids.”
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