Q&A with Michigan Policy Director Joshua Rivera on Combatting Food Insecurity

Joshua Rivera

In November 2021, BDT and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) collaborated to launch the Michigan Benefits Center, a one-stop application center that offers state residents access to food support.

To learn more about the role data and technology can play in combatting food insecurity, we asked Joshua Rivera, the Economic Stability Administration Policy Director for MDHHS for his thoughts on the partnership and the impact it will have on Michigan residents. In his position, Joshua is responsible for managing and overseeing strategic planning and policy development for public assistance and economic security programs such as TANF, SNAP, and energy assistance. 

Q. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/Food Assistance Program (FAP) has the capacity to help a lot of people but is not optimized. What are the biggest barriers preventing people from accessing the Michigan Food Assistance Program? 
Michigan outperforms the national average in reaching eligible residents across the state. In 2018, 90% of all eligible persons participated in the Food Assistance Program, compared to 82% nationally. Michigan’s rich history of public-private partnerships and the extensive efforts of federal, nonprofit, corporate, and philanthropic partners to bolster access to nutrition benefits helped get us to where we are now. Yet, more work is to be done to break down barriers in accessing food assistance. Some of those barriers include misinformation or lack of information about the program, worries about the difficulty of the application, and access to technology. That’s why MDHHS is excited about our partnership with Benefits Data Trust to provide proactive application assistance so that we can meet people where they are and help them should they need assistance.   

Q. Applications for food benefits can be complicated and difficult to navigate. How is the state of Michigan addressing this challenge? 
MDHHS is strongly invested in providing excellent customer service. That includes providing an application experience that is welcoming, easy to understand and efficient. Towards this end, MDHHS has undertaken extensive efforts to improve the application process, such as by streamlining the application and renewal process. In 2018, with help from Detroit design studio Civilla, Michigan reduced the application for benefits from 42 pages to 18 pages. This reduced the amount of time clients spent completing the application and ensured that Michigan no longer had the longest application in the United States. In 2020, the same partnership produced a simpler benefits renewal process that improved completion and reduced errors. Moreover, Michigan is lucky to partner with excellent SNAP Outreach Partners such as Elder Law of Michigan, the Food Bank Council of Michigan, Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 2-1-1 Network. These partners provide outreach and assistance with applying to SNAP. With the addition of Benefits Data Trust as a SNAP Outreach Partner, Michigan is poised to reach even more residents in need and further simplify access to our Food Assistance Program.  

Q. What makes SNAP/FAP such an important component of the state’s, and the country’s, social safety net against hunger? 
Often called the nation’s “most important anti-hunger program,” SNAP is a vital component of Michigan’s safety net because it’s broadly available to nearly all households with low incomes.  In Michigan, SNAP helps over 1.2 million families afford nutritious food while supporting economic growth and self-sufficiency. Moreover, research has shown that children in families receiving SNAP are less likely go hungry and are more likely to be healthy and do well in school. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of SNAP in quickly and efficiently delivering nutrition benefits to families to stave off hunger and promote financial stability.  

Q. How can technology transform access to benefits programs and help states like Michigan reach people who need nutritious food?  
Technology plays a key role in reducing food insecurity by facilitating access to information and in applying for critical benefits. In Michigan, technology such as the MI Bridges website allows clients to learn about their potential eligibility, find resources and apply for benefits. MI Bridges continues to innovate with clients in mind such as by allowing clients to upload documents directly on the site and notifying clients of other resources they might be eligible to receive. Moreover, technology and data can be integrated to identify needs and communicate to clients in user-friendly mediums. For example, as part of Michigan’s partnership with Benefits Data Trust we hope to use data already provided by clients to inform clients of their potential eligibility for benefits. In doing so, Michigan seeks to save time and reduce the burden associated with applying for assistance.   

Q. What are some of the misconceptions about SNAP/FAP and the people who receive SNAP/FAP benefits?  
It is a common misconception that SNAP discourages work and promotes government dependence. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the typical family receiving food assistance is only temporarily receiving aid to help make ends meet and has a member in the family that is working. According to the U.S Census Bureau, 12% of families in the United States received SNAP and more than three-quarter of those families had at least one person working. SNAP also supports work. By reducing the cost of food, SNAP helps families afford work expenses such as transportation and work clothing.  

Check out this blog to read our CEO, Trooper Sanders’, thoughts on the launch of the Michigan Benefits Center.