Andrew Lopez used to spend two full days a month plotting his grocery itinerary. He sifted through coupons from Los Angeles grocers, carefully putting together and editing a shopping list that would hopefully get the most out of their funds.
“I used to run from store to store to get the best deal,” said Lopez, who delivers restaurant meals for a living. “It’s something I inherited from my mother. She would go to Super A, then Vons, then this one and that one. I grew up thinking it’s just the way you do it.
Lopez is now the sole breadwinner in his family as his wife, who worked at a fast food restaurant before the pandemic, is now a stay-at-home mom to their children aged 1 and 2. For them, these additional savings are crucial.
Lopez doesn’t qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – he makes a little more money than the cutoff – but his wife and children do. Their monthly allowance is just under $ 400, but even with regulated meal planning and careful editing, their grocery list often costs between $ 500 and $ 600 per month.
“Before the pandemic, a lot of people were making very difficult decisions between paying rent or buying food. The pandemic has made these decisions even more difficult. “
The Lopez family are among a growing number of Americans who are relying on SNAP benefits to get by this year. In early March, before the shutdowns in the United States, 37 million people were receiving SNAP benefits. According to the most recent data available from the USDA, that number rose 15.8% to 43 million people the following month.
One thing Lopez has found helpful in making the most of her family’s benefits is a new mobile app designed to help users locate the cheapest groceries in their area.
Called Forage Grocery, the app prompts users to select stores in their neighborhood, download their grocery list, and populate the list with the prices of those items, along with coupons for those products or cheaper alternatives, as a white label, if available. Having the totals side by side allows users to decide which store to visit. However, it does not cover hot foods at this time.
“The two things we solve are time and money,” Justin Intal, founder of Forage, told Civil Eats. He describes his user base both as “[financially] poor and poor in time.
In California alone, the state with the most SNAP beneficiaries, an average of 4.1 million Californians lived in households that received at least food stamps each month before the pandemic. By October 2020, that number had increased by 20% to more than 4.5 million. And as of August 6, about 10 million Californians were food insecure, one in three children lived in a food insecure household, and more than 40 percent of families with young children under the age of 12 n did not have enough to eat, up from 15.1% in 2018.
While the SNAP benefits help put food on the table, they aren’t quite enough. Studies have shown that funds often run out before the start of the third week of each month, leaving beneficiaries to make difficult decisions about where and how to spend their money.
“Before the pandemic, a lot of people were making very difficult decisions between paying rent or buying food. Or if they would use their money to pay utility bills or buy food, ”said Amanda Schultz Brochu, vice president of the San Diego Hunger Coalition. “The pandemic has made these decisions even more difficult. “
Right now, the app is only available for stores in California (Walmart, Ralph’s, Food 4 Less, Albertsons, Vons, Safeway, and Pavillions with more being added weekly), but Ital and his team are working on scaling.
“We are trying to cover where the need is greatest at the moment,” Intal said.
In the next few months, it hopes to add stores statewide, before expanding to New York City, where SNAP user data suggests need density is second highest. In doing so, they will be able to expand more easily into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as those states have similar stores.
Although the app is available free to everyone, the target market is SNAP users. “They are the ones who need to save money the most to maximize their benefits,” Intal explained. According to Intal, the median price of a nutritious meal is over $ 3.02, while SNAP users receive about $ 1.44 for each of their three meals per day.
The business model behind the app is based on membership fees charged to participating retailers, which means it’s a paid model. It does not currently include ads, but could in the future, and Intal said the company will need to find additional revenue streams as it grows.
Forage Grocery also works with food safety organizations including the San Diego Hunger Coalition, 211 California by United Way, CalFresh Initiative, Basic Need Initiative, eatfresh.org, No Hungry Kid and others to share the app with those who need it. most. Part of their partnership includes running in-app banners connecting users to additional resources, like Feeding America, an organization that helps people find their local food bank, and CalFresh.org, which helps people apply for food. food stamps.
Jacqueline Hess, Program Manager at the San Diego Hunger Coalition, was instrumental in helping Intal and her team during the development phase of creating the app, reviewing the documents and inviting Intal to present at the a task force call with other California organizations that have helped SNAP recipients.
“Forage is one of the many tools that really enables low-income communities to better meet their food needs by stretching their budgets a bit further,” Hess said. “I think that until we have more equitable wages that allow families to meet their basic needs, we really see this as an essential tool for them to identify cost alternatives.”
Food aid programs are not without other obstacles. In addition to providing limited funds, programs can also be difficult to enroll. While these programs have become more flexible about who can receive benefits and how, for example, applicants are no longer required to go through face-to-face interviews, which speeds up the process – they still require applicants to go through many stages.
“Another shortcoming of the SNAP program [is that] there is intimidating language that prevents eligible immigrant families from applying to the program, ”Hess said, referring to the public charge rule adopted by the Trump administration that immigrants to the United States can see each other deny visas or permission to enter the country due to disability or lack of economic resources (the rule is currently being contested nationally). “They are reluctant to go through this process, not knowing how it might affect them and their family members. “
Although it is difficult to get information at the hyper-local level, the Hunger Coalition said it had recently looked into local unemployment claims. Since the start of the pandemic, a third of San Diego’s workforce has filed for unemployment. While it is difficult to conclusively prove causality in relation to the correlation between unemployment figures and SNAP applications, Joseph Shumate, communications director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said that “unemployment is a pretty good deal. good indicator of food insecurity and, in fact, is one of the indicators that we in the calculation of regional food insecurity.
Those most affected are those with the lowest levels of education – those with a high school diploma or less account for 46% of unemployment claims.
Additionally, Schultz Brochu pointed out that food insecurity disproportionately affects communities of color. Black and Latin populations experience 31 percent food insecurity, compared to 25 percent of the general population.
Although the company itself does not do any outreach directly to non-English speaking households, Forage relies on outreach programs already established by community partners to spread the word, especially in marginalized communities. The San Diego Hunger Coalition, for example, does localized outreach by working with contractors to increase enrollments and help people apply.
“It’s effective because we work with organizations in communities that residents trust and have the language skills to help non-English speakers,” said Shumate.
One positive point, Intal said, is that recent legislative changes allow people to use their perks to purchase groceries online for home delivery, helping them save time and create an experience. safer purchase.
In March, around 35,000 people receiving SNAP benefits purchased food online. By June, that number had risen to over 750,000, an increase due to the expansion of SNAP’s online availability to many new states as well as more people enrolled in the program.
Although the need has been greater this year, Dr. Craig Gundersen, a professor at the University of Illinois and author of numerous studies on food insecurity and SNAP, believes that applications like Forage will continue to be useful as well. after the pandemic and the economic collapse. it is provoked.
“I think it could help increase access and encourage people to apply,” Hess said, adding that people who struggle to meet their basic food needs often don’t know they qualify. The app includes links to direct people to programs like the San Diego Hunger Coalition for additional information and help.
Since Forage is an app, its use requires a smartphone, which can be a failure for some low-income homes. But this is just one tool in the arsenal of dedicated application supporters who can guide SNAP recipients through their other options.
So far, the app has proven to be useful for those who use its budgets, albeit the savings are modest. By early October, Forage Grocery had over 6,500 users and over $ 175,000 in ongoing savings.
“Twenty dollars a month might not seem like a lot to most people, but it’s a lot to me,” Lopez said.
This article was originally published in Civil Eats and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange of the Journalism Solutions Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues.
Bailey Berg is a freelance columnist based in Anchorage, Alaska. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and more.