April 30, 2020

Online SNAP Access, Plus a Quick Pivot, Bring Health Equity to Brooklyn    

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This is the second post in our Hope Counts series. The first is Rising to the Occasion: Advice From a Disaster Recovery Veteran

The Farragut Food Club was created to make it easier for residents of a public housing community in Brooklyn to buy groceries online. In normal times, the resident-led pilot would have cause to celebrate.   

The food club’s multiple wins include one secure storage area to safely and conveniently retrieve groceries bought online using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

Three hundred residents of Farragut Houses joined the club to take advantage of waived membership and delivery fees, shopping online at both Amazon with their SNAP benefits and at the local supermarket Western Beef using credit or debit cards through an Instacart partnership. Sixty residents used the service at least once.  

“We were the first to offer this service in our community, and we hope that we won’t be the last,” said Farragut Houses resident Denise Grant, the food club’s director of orders. 

Phase one of the pilot ended in February, logging nine full months of increased choice for consumers of modest means. But rather than recognize its strides and delve into 2.0 design, the food club has spent the last several weeks pivoting to become a lifeline, shifting its focus to emergency food relief so residents can stay home and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.  

According to Chloe Arnow, the operational changes occurred over the course of a weekend in mid-March, when her phone started ringing with calls from Grant and other food club leaders.  

“It was clear what was happening and that we needed to act because stockpiling, hoarding and supply chain risk were creating an imminent food crisis,” said Arnow, a public housing fellow in the New York office of Enterprise Community Partners who co-designed the food club with residents from Farragut Houses. “Store shelves were becoming empty and people were being told to minimize social interaction. What were our seniors and homebound residents going to do?“ 

Within a matter of days, the team mobilized to decentralize the food club and prioritize who needed support first.  

They  built a spreadsheet with the names and contact information of all food club members, categorizing seniors, residents who are homebound, families with children and able-bodied individuals. Using their trusted door-to-door delivery infrastructure to serve their neighbors who needed help first,   they ensured access to a food supply, partnering with the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP) and City Harvest.  

The partnership gave rise to a broader food-relief effort serving Farragut Houses and two nearby public housing developments, Ingersoll and Walt Whitman Houses. Led by MARP and One Community, the Farragut Food Club’s infrastructure coordinates volunteers mainly from Brooklyn Mutual Aid who are outfitted with protective gear. To date, volunteers have made over 500 deliveries of fresh produce and non-perishable items, prioritizing seniors and individuals who are homebound.  

Economically and Physically Isolated 

In 2015, a New York Times article portrayed Farragut Houses – a 10-building complex home to 3,400 residents – as economically and physically isolated, with the “gated Brooklyn Navy Yard to the east, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the south” and the “luxury apartments of Dumbo to the west, the historic rowhouses of Vinegar Hill to the north.” The article chronicled both the lack of convenient, healthy food options and years-long delays around a promised nearby grocery story.  

Since then, a major food retailer has arrived in the neighborhood. Though as Arnow points out, “Residents report getting a few items here and there, but it is not affordable enough for them to shop there consistently or for their entire grocery purchase.”  

In 2019, New York State was the first to pilot the USDA’s initiative giving SNAP recipients the ability to use their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card for online purchases. Wide-ranging support for nationwide implementation – along with eliminating delivery fees and other adjustments to increase online access – is mounting amid uncertainty around when things will return to normal post-Covid-19.  

As more states pilot online SNAP access, the Farragut Food Club has important lessons.  

“The sustainability and replicability of this effort are a work in progress,” said Judi Kende, Enterprise Community Partners VP and New York market leader. “Yet Covid-19 made it clear that the model supports community resilience and has deep value as a community asset.”  

Agile, Authentic Leadership 

Woman at a counter
Denise Grant and neighbors started Farragut Food Club to remove fees and hurdles to using food assistance benefits online.

Early on, a group of Farragut Houses residents identified gaps in the online SNAP program. Most obvious was the reality that public housing buildings don’t have doormen or protected areas to store deliveries. Lack of internet access, a personal computer or the ability to use one also raised barriers.   

Solving for the disparities informed the design of the Farragut Food Club and gave rise to a corps of volunteers leaders – Grant and fellow Farragut residents Joyce Bryant, Lisa Edwards and Virginia Moses – who managed the food club’s day-to-day operations. Their first step entailed working with the community and retailers to design a centralized receiving system, where packages are stored securely and delivered to residents who are homebound by familiar people.  

During office hours at two onsite computer labs, residents honed online skills and learned how to find good deals on the web. Grant visited seniors and residents unable to leave their home and helped them make their purchases on a computer tablet.  

Despite strong interest from residents, usage of the club’s services remained limited with many older residents reluctant to change how they shopped for food, even when it means taking the bus or paying for a car service to spend several hours hunting down bargains at multiple stores for the best prices.  

The food club’s near-instant transition to an equitable disaster-response system surfaced its strength and agility as well as its limitations. The club leaders are older and part of a high-risk group during the pandemic. At this inflection point, discussions are underway to determine what support and infrastructure are needed to promote the food club’s growth and development.   

As the next iteration unfolds, Arnow said the pilot made clear that online SNAP access is a means toward greater choice, dignity and health equity.  

“It’s about being able to get what everyone else gets in the same manner they’re getting it. It’s as simple as that,” she said. 

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