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Are You Eligible for Food Stamps Now? Maybe, but It’s Complex

The safety net is starting to unravel.

At the end of the month, struggling Americans could lose the extra $600 per week they’ve been receiving in unemployment insurance. Some eviction protections are already expiring.

And as people scramble to afford basic needs, hunger looms.

Tens of millions of Americans are in danger. According to Census Bureau Pulse Survey data released this week, 10.8 percent of American adults are experiencing some level of food insecurity. Louisiana, Nevada and Ohio had the highest rates: 17 to 18 percent. Food lines have been a feature of newspaper front pages and home pages for months now.

And yet there is a program that may be able to help millions of struggling Americans. One that was underused even before the coronavirus crisis: food stamps, or as they are known in most places now, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Policy experts and social services administrators are hoping that everyone whose income has gone to zero or close to it will at least ask. “If you’ve never accessed these benefits before, it may be because of the way that SNAP in particular has been portrayed or vilified,” said Carlos M. Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which helps people sign up for SNAP. “People do not understand that this program is here for them at this exact time.”

SNAP is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, which lays out the rules. States handle applications and administration, and they have some leeway with the federal regulations. (And with the terms: Missouri still uses the older “food stamp” phrasing.)

As a result, it’s possible to offer some general guidelines for understanding how the program works, but your state has the final word. The rules are numerous and complicated, but there are exceptions and waivers that might apply to you — so don’t be deterred.

In the 2018 fiscal year, 39.7 million people qualified in an average month. To do so, they usually had to pass both income tests and asset tests, though households with elderly or disabled people may face less strict rules.

In most places, someone living alone can have a gross monthly income of no more than $1,354 and a net income of $1,041. For a family of four, the gross income limit is $2,790 while the net income limit is $2,146. The Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture lists these limits and many other rules on its website via a SNAP frequently asked questions page.

Net income figures account for deductions that the program allows. Those deductions include allowances for earnings (to encourage work), dependent care, certain medical expenses and unusually large housing costs. Applicants generally have to provide documentation.

Money you receive from unemployment payments may reduce or eliminate your SNAP eligibility. Still, if unemployment is your only income and you have few assets, it’s worth applying for SNAP to see if you qualify.

The cap on assets is $2,250, or $3,500 if a household has someone 60 or older or someone with a disability. Homes and most retirement plan balances don’t count. Vehicles can count, though states have leeway to set those rules.

Yes, two of them.

First, if you’re between the ages of 16 and 59, you’re supposed to enroll in relevant state training programs, accept suitable offers of employment and not quit voluntarily or choose to work less than 30 hours per week. But there are exceptions, including for people caring for children under 6 years old or incapacitated adults, and those who have a physical or mental limitation or are participating regularly in a drug or alcohol treatment program.

There’s another set of rules for people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are both able bodied and have no dependents, including working or participating in a work program at least 80 hours per month. You can read more about them on the Department of Agriculture’s website.

Waivers sometimes apply to work rules as well, which is why it’s important to apply for SNAP if you’re not sure how your own work situation applies, instead of just assuming that you’re ineligible.

You apply through your state. The Department of Agriculture has a map-based directory on its website, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has collected additional state-by-state information.

For people with no internet access, SNAP’s phone number is 1-800-221-5689. There or via the 211 phone service in many areas, you can likely find a state program’s phone number.

Most states have online applications and calculators that screen for eligibility. The application process usually includes an interview, which can often happen over the phone. The process is supposed to take no more than 30 days, and it could take less than a week if your income or assets are particularly low.

To gain access to benefits, you’ll use an electronic benefit transfer card that works like a debit card in grocery stores. You’ll need to be ready to recertify eligibility from time to time, which can be a major obstacle for struggling individuals who may also be trying to navigate uncertain unemployment schedules or commute without a reliable vehicle.

“A lot of people roll off at that point,” said Pamela Herd, a Georgetown University professor and an expert on the “administrative burdens” that keep otherwise eligible people from getting access to many public programs.

People who have less get more, but there are limits and they depend on your family size.

The maximum monthly allotment for a one-person household is $194. For a family of four, the cap is $646. Cost-of-living adjustments may change those amounts in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Sometimes, yes. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report found that 57 percent of low-income students who seemed potentially eligible for SNAP (and had at least one other additional factor that suggested they were food insecure) did not report receiving SNAP benefits. That was about 1.8 million people.

Moreover, investigators found that state SNAP employees and some federal officials admitted confusion about student eligibility rules.

SNAP rules generally keep students whose parents are supporting them (or those on a meal plan) from getting benefits. Others who have little income or assets should consult the Agriculture Department’s bare-bones guidance and inquire further with their state if they think they might qualify. The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University has a guide for colleges and universities that want to help students.

It depends. If you’re receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits, you should definitely apply for SNAP. In many instances, someone from a Social Security office may be able to help.

Some people receiving Social Security retirement benefits may be eligible for SNAP, too, but as of 2015, fewer than half of eligible older Americans were receiving benefits. The Department of Agriculture has a separate section of its website laying out the different eligibility rules for elderly and disabled people.

Carrie R. Welton, director of policy at the Hope Center, a research and advocacy group, said your first stop should still be the state agency that determines eligibility. Caseworkers can be both helpful and empathetic: Ms. Welton recalled her own time on public assistance, when the person on the other side of the desk started to cry when she realized that Ms. Welton would need to stop attending college full time if she hoped to maintain her benefits.

Other organizations may be able to help. Part of Ms. Welton’s work involves translating federal and state policy to help students who may be eligible for SNAP and other benefits. College financial aid offices may be able to assist students, too.

Help may also be available at your local food bank (several hundred colleges and universities have food banks as well). You can find a food bank near you using the ZIP code tool on Feeding America’s website.

“We’re pursuing the initiative to feed the people in the lines but help shorten them as well,” said Mr. Rodriguez, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey president. “SNAP puts dollars in people’s hands to shop the way you and I do.”

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In Lockdown, a Neighborhood Opens Up

The residents of Bernal Heights, a dense little neighborhood built around a grassy hill in the south of San Francisco, have been under lockdown a long time — since March 17, to be exact, when the city became among the first in the United States to shut down.

With incomes and freedom lost, and boredom and anxiety setting in, the neighborhood turned inward. This has led to a flurry of new activity.

Neighbors in the upper-middle-class community have formed a small newspaper for children. Socially distanced street dance parties and cocktail hours have taken over, block by block, as the sun sets. Some people have created a new micro-social safety net, turning bookshelves into sidewalk food banks and garages into medical-supply distribution centers. Email lists and text chains for each block are buzzing. And as sheltering in place eases, some of the changes in Bernal Heights are turning permanent.

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It’s a sign of how Covid-19 has taken us back in time. Televisions had killed stoop culture. Those little stages for gossip, flirting and catching up went quiet as people retreated to the living room after work. Then phones killed the living room TV time and homes got quiet, too, each family member retreating to a bedroom or a far end of the sofa.

Now we have returned to the stoop.

For all the pain that the virus has caused the 25,000 or so who live in Bernal Heights, it has also brought them together as a community — a pattern that is playing out in neighborhoods around the country.

“The scale of life has changed,” said Francesca Russello Ammon, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “Your world has shrunk. The neighborhood and the block become really important.”

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In a one-bedroom apartment on Wright Street, Ryan Stagg, 27, turns on the oven to bake the sourdough country loaf he has prepped the night before. A little while later, he revs up the countertop toaster oven for sourdough cinnamon rolls and brown butter chocolate chip cookies — the specialty of his fiancée, Daniella Banchero.

When the virus hit, the couple were hitting their stride. Ms. Banchero was cooking at Piccino, a hip restaurant in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco that is teeming with start-ups. Mr. Stagg was just opening Pollara, a new Roman pizza place in Berkeley, Calif. He was laid off. She was furloughed.

“We were finally getting a little bit of success,” Mr. Stagg said.

They started baking bread for neighbors, dangling each loaf in a basket, over the fence and down to the sidewalk. It was free. Demand grew.

Their landlord was unwilling to reduce their rent, so they started to charge $9 for a big sourdough loaf and expanded the menu, adding cinnamon rolls ($3), cookies ($2) and crumb cakes.

Their woodworker friend who lives down the road and was out of work welded them a boom arm. An artist a few blocks further painted them a sign.

In recent days, they have started using a commercial kitchen in a restaurant that’s been shuttered. And they applied to start a proper registered business: The Bernal Bakery.

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Natalie Mead, who works at Instagram, was home on medical leave for chronic migraines when the lockdown happened. She was ready to help. One thing her house has that is rare in the neighborhood is a deep front garden. So she decided to make a scavenger hunt for children.

“I just went down into my basement and started looking around for anything fun, and it took me awhile since I don’t have kids,” Ms. Mead, 28, said. “But I found some Hot Wheels I still had from when I was a kid.”

She hid them in the garden and wrote in big chalk letters on the sidewalk: “I spy five Hot Wheels. “

Neighborhood children (and some adults), bored from staring at Zoom, were hooked. Soon, items to keep the game going were pouring in.

“People have brought over a lot of collections — stress ball collection, dinosaurs that their kids aren’t playing with anymore, action figures, billiard balls, little miniature board games,” Ms. Mead said. “This week it’s Smurfs.”

For social distancing reasons, neighbors usually leave the prizes to hide under her front stairs. Ms. Mead said she hears 10 to 20 families a day coming through her garden for the scavenger hunt. The hunters arrive first thing in the morning, when many children are often still in their pajamas.

“I have to keep myself from coming out and saying hi all day now,” she said.

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Chris Colin, a freelance journalist, came up with the idea of a kids’ newspaper two days into the school cancellations.

“I looked up and realized that there were not only two children in my house with nothing to do but I just felt this, like a disturbance in the force,” he said.

Grown-ups have wine. Kids are struggling.

“The idea was not just to occupy them but to give them a way to explore what the hell has happened to their world at a very local level, a very personal level,” he said.

Mr. Colin emailed some parents in the neighborhood asking if their children would contribute articles. He expected a couple of submissions. He stopped counting after 100.

And so the paper, called Six Feet of Separation, was born.

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In each issue, Mr. Colin accepts short reflections and recipes, pieces on loneliness or adventures. No writers above the age of 17 need apply.

One 14-year-old data journalist organized a bunch of children to climb to the top of Bernal Hill in different shifts to count the number of people walking up and determine peak crowd hours. He has started accepting “foreign correspondents,” who write missives from well beyond Bernal Heights.

“My editorial policy is, ‘Yes,’” Mr. Colin said.

He carefully formats each newspaper as a PDF and then blasts it out over email. He publishes when he has enough articles, every week or so. Parents then print out copies at home.

Now the paper is expanding through word of mouth among parents. A representative from AT&T found Mr. Colin. They are donating to fund its expansion around the country.

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The food bank is just some bookshelves that Colleen Irwin, a nurse practitioner at San Francisco General Hospital, put in front of her house. But every day it’s full of fresh and canned food.

She started it after talking to a neighbor who told her there were day laborers in Bernal Heights who had not had anything to eat. She asked if he was hungry right then, and he said he was.

“So I text the Pussy Chicks,” she said, referring to her group of politically active friends, who named themselves after the iconic headgear of the 2017 Women’s March. “And of course people stopped what they were doing, they went in their cupboards, and so it started the next day. And I started talking to a neighbor, Dan, who was walking by with a dog, and I said, ‘Could you build a bookcase?’”

In the end, someone donated the shelves. She made a poster that read “Emergency Food Bank” and covered it in glittery paper. She handed out postcards to those who had orange and lemon trees in their backyards, asking for citrus donations.

“Everybody says yes,” Ms. Irwin said. She estimated that at least four times a day, the bookshelf fills up and empties out.

“It’s a dynamic little thing,” she said. “Little kids come by and the parents have them bring stuff and put it in there, and then the kids come back later and say, ‘Hey Ma, the chili, it’s gone.’”

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Misa Perron-Burdick, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Bernal Heights, has many low-income patients. She wanted the women who see her to leave with supplies to shelter in place. So she reached out to friends and neighbors and set up an Amazon wish list and a PayPal account.

“It just snowballed. We get about 10 deliveries of supplies a day,” Dr. Perron-Burdick said. “Everything happens in the garage.”

Neighbors are shopping, donating supplies, and helping to sort, stock, and deliver goods. From the garage, they pack individual care packages and head out for delivery. Many of the volunteers were recently laid off themselves. The corner-store owner even made a deal to source products wholesale for her.

Dr. Perron-Burdick wants to hold onto some of the changes.

“I don’t want to stop relying on my neighbors for things, and I don’t want my neighbors to stop relying on me for things,” she said. “I hope that we don’t go back to the way we were.”

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Some neighbors have banded together to shop on a rotation, taking care of the Target run or the grocery run for a half-dozen homes at a time. Others have bulk ordered groceries — 50-pound bags of flour, 30 pounds of blueberries, a giant salmon — to share.

There’s a Google map of houses with rainbows in the window for kids to “scavenger hunt” and count the rainbows from the safe distance of the sidewalk.

There is a “window pane block party” for people to “introduce themselves” by putting a sign on their window. One resident posts new jokes in the window every day.

Joyce McKinney and her husband are in the vulnerable-age category, and young people have volunteered to run errands for them, which did not happen before. The other day, she said, an unsolicited bottle of wine and a six pack of I.P.A. showed up on their doorstep.

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J.T. Williams is a trial attorney who in 2016 moved from Texas to San Francisco. His dream had always been to sing opera, and here he would do it. In four years, he has performed in more than 100 shows.

Now, every day from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Mr. Williams, a dramatic bass-baritone, stands on his balcony and sings.

He likes dramatic arias, like “Il Pagliacci Prologue,” “Cortigiani” from “Rigoletto,” “Nemico” from “Andrea Chenier” and “Eri Tu” from “Un Ballo in Maschera.” He ends most evenings with the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

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There are too many events on different blocks to fully document the stoop cocktail scene.

Some groups do masked singalongs or poetry readings. Every Saturday, a garage door rolls up and Sam Cooke’s “Let the Good Times Roll” plays at full blast. On Easter, a neighbor wore a bunny costume and walked around waving at children.

Around 8 p.m. there’s a drum circle on Bennington Street. On Sundays, there is a sing- and dance-along on Moultrie Street.

“Many of us didn’t know each other despite living within 50 yards,” said Sarah Gordon, a participant in the dance-along. She said she and her neighbors have learned the Electric Slide.

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Food Banks Are Overrun, as Coronavirus Surges Demand

In Omaha, a food pantry that typically serves as few as 100 people saw 900 show up on a single day. In Jonesboro, Ark., after a powerful tornado struck, a food bank received less than half the donations it expected because nervous families held on to what they had. And in Washington State and Louisiana, the National Guard has been called in to help pack food boxes and ensure that the distributions run smoothly.Demand for food assistance is rising at an extraordinary rate, just as the nation’s food banks are being struck by shortages of both donated food and volunteer …

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