Can Text Message Outreach Help Feed Families in Need?

| By: Miriam Lipschutz, Policy Analyst

The U.S. has been experiencing the fastest price inflation since the 1980s, and households across the country are feeling the heavy weight of rising costs — notably for necessities like food and housing. Even before inflation skyrocketed, more than 1 in 10 Americans — more than 37 million people — were living in poverty. Without any support while costs surge, households with low incomes face harsh realities, like a parent skipping dinner so there is enough for their children to eat, or an older adult getting too few groceries to afford their medications.  

There are programs that can help — the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is a lifeline for millions and can be the difference between keeping enough food on the table or going to bed hungry.

SNAP provides families with assistance so they can better afford the food they need to keep them fueled and fed. But nearly 1 in 5 eligible people lose this vital resource when it’s time to recertify for SNAP, typically every 6 or 12 months, by missing the required deadline. Procedural barriers — like forgetting to submit a form or complete an interview — are not only devastating for families, but also put a huge burden on government, costing agencies an additional $80 per household on average, adding up to millions of dollars annually.

During a time when many state governments are facing budget constraints and staff shortages, the average application can take two to three times longer to process than a recertification, costing states valuable time and resources. This cycling on and off the program — referred to as “churn” — leaves millions of dollars on the table in food benefits that eligible people can no longer access.

To help agencies reduce SNAP churn, BDT created a guidebook, in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. The guidebook helps county and state government staff address costly churn by leveraging a tool many of us are familiar with: texting. Increasingly, text messages are used to send automated reminders about our upcoming dinner reservation, confirming our next doctor’s appointment, or alerts that our package is out for delivery. Texts are a simple and effective tool to help keep our busy lives on track, so why not utilize text reminders to help eligible people access food assistance while saving governments time and money? 

Of U.S. adults who earn less than $30,000 a year, 97 percent have cellphones, making a simple text reminder a fast and inexpensive tool to reach SNAP eligible families. BDT launched a texting program in New York City — reaching over 600,000 households — to help New Yorkers successfully recertify for SNAP. The program was done at one-third the cost of having those same individuals cycle off SNAP.  

The USDA — the federal agency that administers SNAP — even provides grants each year to fund process and technology improvements that could help states fund the launch of a texting program. In fact, BDT’s texting project in New York City was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's SNAP Process and Technology Improvement Grant. With BDT’s guidance, several other states have started to implement these text reminders and assistance, and any state or county SNAP agency can use this guidebook to develop the data, messaging, and planning needed to implement it

Leveraging tools like texting can help people keep food on the table as inflation creates difficult situations for people nationwide. Now more than ever, food assistance is a support that should be properly utilized to meet the challenges of families today. 

The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.