Sunday, January 26, 2014

Part Two - New York State's Erie County SNAP Process.

Filing for SNAP is a snap to do.

Part one was all about the facts, the faces of SNAP. 

Part two walks you through the SNAP application process specifically for New York State's Erie County. What to avoid, how to make it fast and painless, what questions to expect, what papers to have when you are ready to file, other social services that can be applied for at the same time.

Really it is. If you know the shortcuts, the questions, and the forms you'll need, you won't face the long lines unless you absolutely have to.

First of all, if you are able to file online, do that. Avoid going to the Rath Building, unless it is absolutely unavoidable. If you do not have internet service at home, go to your nearest public library and file using one of their computers.

Before you begin you will need a list of everyone who will be included in the application. Their full names, Social Security numbers, and housing and income information in hand or you won't be able to complete the forms.

Go to this Account Creation page and set up a new account.

You will then log in to myBenefits Home.

1. Click on the blue tab on the right that reads, Start New Benefits Application.

2. Type in your zip code and then click on the Next button.

3. Select only SNAP and then click on the Next button. The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) Benefits online application has issues and it will be easier to apply for that in person at the HEAP office, at one of the outreach sites, or as soon as your SNAP benefits are approved. Regular HEAP is only available until January 31st. After that it is only available for emergency coverage until March 16th. 

4. Read this next page all the way through and then select the box next to the statement, Please click this check box to indicate you understand each of the items listed above and then click on the Next button.
  • In this application process, we will ask you questions about the people in your home, your money and your bills.
  • At the end of the application process, you will be given a documentation checklist. The checklist will list the documentation you will need to provide to your worker to determine your eligibility.
  • Once you have finished answering these questions, your application will be submitted electronically to your local agency. Before the application can be submitted, you will be required to create an account which will consist of a secure and confidential User ID / password.
  • You can still apply for SNAP and/or HEAP benefits even if you have reached your Temporary Assistance time limit.
  • You will be asked to provide proof of some of the answers you have given. A list of all necessary documentation requirements is available by using this link to view the Documentation Requirements. You will receive a more specific list of the items you need to provide proof for after you submit this application. Once your application is reviewed and you are interviewed by your local district, you may be asked to provide further documentation and/or clarification.
  • You have the right to submit your application right away. We must accept your application if, at a minimum, it contains your name, address (if you have one), and a signature. This information will establish your application filing date. However, the application process must be completed and we must interview you for us to determine your eligibility. The more complete your application is when you submit it, the faster a worker will be able to process it.You may submit your application at anytime during the process of completing the questions.
  • By law, you will get an answer about your application within 30 days of your filing date. Your filing date is the day you sign and submit your application using this website. If you submit your application after your local agency's normal business hours or on a weekend or on a holiday, your filing date is the next business day.
  • Before you can receive benefits, you will need to talk with a worker over the phone or in person. Your local agency will contact you to set up an interview appointment. You will be asked to provide contact information and best times for your worker to contact you.
  • If your household has little or no income or liquid resources, or if your rent and utility expenses are more than your income and liquid resources, or you are a migrant or seasonal farm worker with little or no income or resources when you apply, you may be qualified to receive SNAP benefits within 5 calendar days of the date that you apply for benefits. Your worker will always review your circumstances to see if you are qualified for expedited processing of your SNAP benefits application. A process is in place to ensure that benefits will be issued to all SNAP benefits eligible households who meet the standards for expedited service.
  • You can apply for and get SNAP benefits for eligible household member(s) even if you or some other members of your household are not eligible for benefits because of immigration status. For example, noncitizen parents can apply for SNAP benefits for their children and receive benefits for their eligible children.
  • The Privacy Act Statement below concerns the use of social security numbers (SSNs). If either you or any member of your household does not have a SSN and fails to cooperate with the process for obtaining one, or has an invalid SSN, that person will not be eligible for SNAP benefits and will not be included in your SNAP household.
  • Privacy Act Statement:
  • The collection of this information, including the social security number (SSN) of each household member, is authorized under the Food Stamp Act of 1977, as amended, 7 U.S.C. 2011-2036. The information will be used to determine whether your household is eligible or continues to be eligible to participate in SNAP. We will verify this information through computer matching programs. This information will also be used to monitor compliance with program regulations and for program management. This information may be disclosed to other Federal and State agencies for official examination, and to law enforcement officials for the purpose of apprehending persons fleeing to avoid the law. If a SNAP claim arises against your household, the information on this application, including all SSNs, may be referred to Federal and State agencies, as well as private claims collection agencies, for claims collection action. Providing the requested information, including the SSN of each household member, is voluntary. However, failure to provide an SSN will result in the denial of SNAP benefits to each individual failing to provide an SSN. Any SSNs provided will be used and disclosed in the same manner as SSNs of eligible household members.
  • You may be required to participate in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Training (SNAP ET). To learn more about the SNAP ET, use this link to view the SNAP ET program information page.
This means unless you are retired, are on disability, or are under the age 18, you must be working or willing to work in order to receive SNAP benefits.

It also means you have to have a Social Security card or a be a lawful permanent resident (holder of a green card), refugee, asylee (an individual who has been granted asylum), or Cuban/Haitian entrants. Victims of foreign domestic violence, victims of human trafficking (applicants for and holders of a “T” visa), and applicants for and holders of a “U” visa may also be eligible. You have to show you have the right to access Federal programs with a Federally recognized identification card.

5. Fill in every field on the Getting Started page and then click on the Next button.

6. When you come to the Keep Working or Set Filing Date page, select the Keep working on the application button and then click on the Next button.

7. People in Your Home page is where things can start to get tricky. Fill in every field as best as you can. If you do not know the answer for certain, skip it. Unless it has a red asterisk, you can answer most questions during your interview. Make certain you give the correct number of people who live in your house. If you have a child, and you are not the primary custodian of that child, you cannot include them in your household, even if they eat all of your food during their time with you because they are a starving growing teenager. When you finish giving information about yourself, click on the Next button.

8. The Job Income page can be tricky too, especially if you've just been laid off and have just started receiving unemployment payments. Do not try to out wit the application. Just answer the questions as best as you can. There are buttons for I don't know, but beware, these can prevent you from filing as well. If you have to guess, guess low and be prepared to send in copies of any paperwork your worker will ask for during the interview. When you finish, click on the Next button.

9. The Other Income page is tedious and will mostly not apply to you. Again, only fill in red asterisked fields and when you finish, click on the Next button.

10. The Housing Bills page is important. Give as much information as possible as this will reduce your income and increase your benefits and when you finish, click on the Next button.

11. The Other Bills page is also important. Give as much information as possible as this will reduce your income and increase your benefits and when you finish, click on the Next button.

12. The Finish page will tell you if you missed anything and will redirect you to exactly what needs to be corrected. As soon as you fix it, click on the blue Finish tab on the left hand side and see if you've corrected everything. As soon as it looks complete you will be given the opportunity to print it out. Print It Out!!!

13. Then Submit it.

You will receive a letter in the mail telling you when your appointment is. Do not miss it. Your worker will likely be late, but this is their problem, not yours. Do not miss your physical interview no matter what. Do not leave any requested copies out. If you cannot make the date or time call no less that two days ahead and reschedule. If you cannot provide certain information, call and tell them you can't and why.

Do not lie or hedge the truth on any part of your application or it can either be dismissed and/or you can be refused from ever applying in the future!

If you must go downtown to apply or drop anything off, make certain to have at least $10 with you for parking.

Park in the underground parking lot directly across the street from the SNAP offices, at 160 Pearl Street.

The SNAP offices are near the corner of Pearl and Church. Pearl Street is one way. Get good directions if you are driving. The office is located at:
158 Pearl Street
Buffalo, New York 14202

It opens at 8 am but be there to stand outside at 7:30am. There will be many people there so early is better than right on time. Everyone stands in a sort of line outside and are honorable in it and generally will be your comrades over the next hour or two. They will smile at you and make small talk as you get closer and closer to the windows. Smile back, and make small talk. It doesn't hurt to do it and they are just as uncomfortable as you are to be there. The office closes at 4 pm, but do not ever go there after 9 am, or you will wait in line for a least two hours to see someone at the Information window.

Go directly to the first window, Information, to receive the info and application or to drop off materials. Do no go to any other floors or stand in any line until you speak first with someone at the Information window.

If you are dropping off materials, hand them everything, tell them the name of your worker that the paperwork is to go to, and request a receipt for everything. Do not leave that window until you get it.

If you have to sit and fill out the form, fill in only the most important information. Who are you, where do you live, what is your monthly income, where do you work, who lives with you, their basic information and that's it. Stand in the second line. It will be long. You will need to be patient. If you arrived early though it should not be more than 40 minutes. Hand in your form, smile, and they will either tell you to have a seat and a worker will see you today, or tell you that you will be contacted by mail.

Do Not Bring Your Children With You! It is loud, scary, and there is nothing for them to do. Find someone to watch them. Bring a snack and a good book.

Try to complete SNAP online and request a telephone interview. It is the fastest and most painless way to go through the process. Make certain to make clear copies of everything requested and highlight the dates, amounts, and any other important information on those copies so that there are no misunderstandings. Return everything as soon as you can, do not wait until the last minute. If you are missing anything, include a note listing what is missing and why and when you will get it mailed out to your worker. 

If you do not have a benefits card and you are approved for SNAP you will be sent to the second floor to have your photo and a fingerprint taken. Don't argue about this with the person at the window. It is for your protection, to prevent not only your benefits from being used by someone else, but to also keep all of your personal information protected and prevent it from being accidentally filed in a similarly named person's file.

You will receive a notice in the mail telling you when your benefits will begin and how much your monthly amount will be. If you already have a benefit card, you can call the EBT number listed on the back, type in your card number, select number four, and hear the same information.

If you are denied benefits you have the right to appeal the decision. If they decide in your favor, you will receive the regular monthly amount plus any pro-rated amount from the expected date of approval to the date of decision.

Also, at any point in this process, you can request a pantry referral to use at any food pantry within your zip code to cover you while you wait for food stamps to make a decision.

This all seems daunting but I encourage you to be patient and complete the process. You are not abusing it or taking advantage of it by applying for assistance when you need help. It is meant to get you through hard times, and if it brings even a small bit of help, it means you can focus on getting your life back on track.

Best of luck!


Monday, January 20, 2014

Mexican International Dinner

The Monday prior to the Mexican International Dinner, Sarah Acton, the Spanish teacher at Tapestry Charter's high school, passed away suddenly while in Costa Rica leading a class trip. 

I had connected with Sarah several weeks before and she was excited to come help with the Mexican International Dinner which was originally set for April 13th.

She was going to invite the students that were traveling with her to the dinner event when they returned from Costa Rica. 

I moved the dinner to May 11th to give some breathing room and alter the plans for the dinner. All of the proceeds of the evening's monetary donations went towards the Sarah Acton Scholarship Fund at the Tapestry Charter School.

Thank you to the crew from Lloyd Taco Trucks for their donation to the dinner! 

There were also cricket lollipops, books from West Side Stories, and pretty neat t-shirts as door prizes.

I set up an altar with items I've collected from Mexico.

Jessica Folckemer, Olmsted's Spanish teacher, loaned a large box of really marvelous stuff to help decorate and educate!

The menu for the evening included:
"Grillos" (fried tiny crickets) with "nopalitos" (sweet slivered inner cactus) served in a red sauce (from Lloyd Taco Trucks) then rolled up in tiny corn tortillas with a stone limed corn avocado paste on top. 

Vegetarian slivered sweet potatoes quick pan fried and served drizzled with raw honey. 

Vegan freshly ground corn pudding, sweetened with aloe vera and cactus juice liquor, and steamed in corn husks. Vegan Ix'ni salsa with fresh tortillas chips.

Vegetarian Chaya cream soup. 

Vegan chocolate sorbet and a vegetarian spiced hot corn/chocolate drink, called atole, served with fresh chili powder and vanilla bean paste.

Did you know that crickets, on average, taste vaguely like a cross between a shrimp and an almond, and are highly nutritious: when dried, they rival beef pound-for-pound when it comes to protein, and far exceed it in calcium and iron. They are remarkably sustainable to raise, requiring so many times fewer resources than most livestock that it's like comparing an S.U.V. to a bicycle.

The most surprising part was how much the crickets tasted like toasted almonds! There were no leftovers, and nearly everyone tasted at least one. Some, like my eldest daughter Sam, couldn't get enough of them.
There were three piñatas and so much loot that everyone walked away with full bellies, fists full of candy, and an experience unlike any they had ever encountered.

Over 160 pounds of food was raised and $230 was donated to the scholarship. It was such a fun evening that I will never forget!

Thanks to everyone who donated their time, money, school supplies, and more to making yet another international dinner such a HUGE hit!

Stand Fast Farm Beef Heart Stuffed with Barley Pearls

During my interview with Stand Fast Farms, Tim heard how I loved barley stuffed hearts and included two in a bag of different cuts to sample. The package I used revealed a well cleaned and trimmed heart that unfurled, the excess strands within the chambers had been removed and made preparing the organ so much quicker.

I washed it gently, but thoroughly with salt water and patted it dry. It was then laid flat, chambers facing up, in an 11 x 9 pan.

In a large pan I cooked sliced leeks in 2 tbls bacon fat and crisps. Then in a medium sauce pot I added this to the bottom of the pot and pureed it smooth, adding a fist full of fresh dill as I smoothed it down. I then added 2 tbls of barley flour to thicken, and slowly beat in water to create a gravy.

In another pan I started 1 1/2 cups of barley pearls in three cups of water. Brought it to a boil and then turned it down low, covered and allowed to cook until all of the water was absorbed. I then blended the gravy in to the barley and poured it over the heart. It was then baked for 15 minutes at 400*.

I sliced it and served it with hearts of romaine and cucumbers with homemade ranch dressing made with herbs from our hanging garden.

English Muffins - No Eggs!

I've made English Muffins before, but not in nearly two years. So I dug out the recipe, tweaked it a bit and left off the dusting of cornmeal.

These are not traditional English muffins but still produce the desired nooks and crannies and freeze better than the original recipe.

1/4 tsp yeast
3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 tbls butter
1 1/4 cup room temp water

Stir the yeast in 1/4 cup of water until creamy. Set aside for five minutes. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and sugar. Create a small well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the creamy yeast. Slowly add in the additional cup of water and using either a wooden spoon or your lightly oiled hands, mix the dough together until a smooth, rubber ball like dough is formed. Knead for about five minutes to allow the gluten to form.

Place in a lightly oiled or buttered bowl and cover with a clean damp kitchen towel for at least five hours.

Pre-heat the oven to 500*. Knead the dough three times and roll out to 1/2 inch thickness. Lightly butter a large jelly roll pan or cookie sheet and place the cut outs close to one another, but not touching. Turn the oven temp down to 400*. Cover with the damp towel for 20 minutes.

Brush the tops with butter and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how golden you'd like your muffins. Set them out to cool on a wire rack and use a fork to split them, not a knife or you'l wreck the crannies. You can freeze them for up to three months. Great toasted and smothered in butter and marmalade!

Plato Dale Sirloin and Curly Purple Potato Fries

Back in July, my husband bought me a new kitchen gadget that allows me to spiral out fruits and vegetables of all sorts, including, as seen here, lush purple potatoes from Plato Dale Farms.

These were quick fried in beautifully rendered tallow from the farm and served with a sirloin that had been cooked to medium on an iron skillet.

The steak was crusted with minced lemon zest and garlic and served with a wilted spinach salad and shitaki mushrooms.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Part One - The face of poverty. The face of SNAP.

This is a two part series on SNAP. This first part highlights the raw data in a way that everyone can see and understand the specifics. It is not driven by ulterior motives, not influenced by politics, religion, or corporate viewpoints or opinions. The tail end includes some of SOLE of Buffalo's board member's experiences, including my most recent application process.

Part two will walk people through the SNAP application process specifically for New York State's Erie County. What to avoid, how to make it fast and painless, what questions to expect, what papers to have when you are ready to file, other social services that can be applied for at the same time.

This is the face of poverty, food, health, and housing insecurity. (Clockwise Military Families and Veterans, Homeless and Housing Insecure, Rural Households, Single Parent Households (Adrienne Flowers), Nursing Home Patients, the Disabled, and the Elderly)

SNAP focuses on the most vulnerable. More than three-fourths of recipients are children or elderly or disabled.

SNAP eligibility is strict. You cannot earn more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline. Most SNAP households are at or below 100% of the poverty guideline. Depending on the state, that comes to approximately $19,530 for a family of 3 as of last year, 2013.

The average (accounting for all SNAP households across the United States) recipient has a gross monthly income (before taxes) of $744, with deductions for child care, medical expenses, shelter costs, and up to $2000 in assets (so you can have a vehicle and a smartphone).

According to the USDA, “Over 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2011 and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings.” 

Four percent of recipients receive $16 a month. The average household of three receives $281 a month. The average individual receives $133 a month. According to the USDA, many states report that beneficiary cards show that most recipients purchase foods such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. 

SNAP recipients can purchase seeds and plants which produce food to eat. In some cities like Los Angeles and New York City, restaurants can be authorized to accept SNAP benefits from qualified homeless, elderly. or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.

Households MAY NOT and CANNOT use food stamps to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco; pet foods; soaps, paper products; household supplies; vitamins and medicines; or food that will be eaten in the store; including hot foods.

I recently applied for SNAP for my family when my husband was laid off. I am a mother of two with degenerative disk disease. My six year review for SSI and SSDI continuance is in year two of review, which means I have recieved no disability support payments since the February before last. I work as a special education substitute teacher for Buffalo Public Schools. I work when I am able and when positions become available. The position does not pay for holidays, snow days, or during the summer but is not considered seasonal nor temporary, two conditions that would allow for immediate SNAP and other social services coverage. I filled online, December 19th. I received a notice of interview for certification for January 3rd. When the case worker called, she called an hour later than the time indicated but was quick and pleasant. We would need to supply a lot of copies of different kinds of documents and pay information before January 13th. I copied everything needed and took the large envelope to the post office and waited. It was returned to us late on the 13th with an insufficient postage notice on it. Never mind that I had a clerk at the local office affix the stamp themselves, it was now too late!

I immediately called the case worker's number and left a message as to what happened and that I would deliver it to her office in the morning. The next day was a two hour nightmare that had me standing in three lines on three floors. In the end, I had a receipt that acknowledged that the post office had stamped the envelope on the 6th as well as a list of it's contents. I have called our worker four times since the night of the 13th with no response, and the last message on her voicemail recording states that she won't be back in the office for another week. Right now our SNAP application is in the limbo of neither denied nor accepted, so all we can do is patiently wait. We've been buying small bags of groceries every few days, just what is needed and delving into food we harvested and preserved this past summer and fall. Hopefully we will get an acceptance letter this week so we can not feel the pinch so severely while my husband looks for full time work.

One of SOLE of Buffalo's board members, who did not feel comfortable publicly sharing her identity, recalls that even though her family struggled financially, she never remembers experiencing food insecurity or hunger as a child. While they certainly ate their fair share of things like hot dogs, pasta, and off-brand cereals, they also had a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, grape vines, wild raspberries, and other foods that they grew, collected, canned, and froze so that they lasted as long as possible. Having local farmers to buy beef from and family that hunted also provided a lot of food. Neighbors and family canned different items, shared excess produce, and more. She believes that a healthy and thriving food community is very important to helping combat food insecurity, that no one can do everything themselves, and that only through community support can everyone benefit and not suffer from hunger.

Kelly Schubert shared, "When my husband was unable to work any longer due to health reasons and disability had not kicked in yet, we were in need of assistance. I had lost my job just a few mths prior and took a job making less than half of what I had been. Now we lost his income too. We had two small children. Living in southern Erie county I had never been to the county building and was scared. Thankfully there was a lady who actually came out to meet me at our town hall. She helped me with all of the paperwork on line, explained what I would need as far as paperwork and was a main point of contact for me. Thus avoiding the entire trip downtown and hours in line. The entire process of needing assistance is a bit overwhelming and hard to deal with as far as one's pride. Thankfully, this woman showed me compassion and understanding and helped me obtain the benefits to provide for my family without making me feel belittled."

Sara Vernon offered, "Here's my small bit on experiences with the SNAP program.

I grew up well, not rich but never hungry. In 2011, I joined a program that paid about $800 a month for a year long work commitment to a non-profit. I was fresh out of college, removed from the nest, and I could, of course, do it all alone and better than anyone else.

Knowing how little I would be paid, I applied for the SNAP Program for the first time. During my application my house was robbed, then my rent money was stolen, then my bike was stolen, and, having had enough, I moved. Knowing that I had to provide proof of address to my caseworker and update her with any changes in my living situation, I tried desperately to get in contact with her. Every day I would leave two or more messages on her personal line. I tried to call the general food stamps line, a useless phone line that, to this day, has never once allowed me to access a real live human being. I had just started my first professional job and, due to restrictions in my contract, could not take a personal day during my first three months of employment, which realistically meant that I could not take an entire day off to trek to the Rath Building to personally meet with my caseworker to process a change of address. For something as important as my ability to eat I'm sure my employer would not make an exception, but to further complicate things I was ashamed to admit that I needed the help. Because I could not reach my caseworker during the application process to provide her proof of my living situation my application was rejected.

After receiving the rejection letter I applied for a fair hearing. In a fair hearing procedure the caseworker and client argue their respective cases--the caseworker stating why a benefit is low or an application is denied, and a client stating why they feel that decision is wrong. It is intimidating to say the least. I argued that my caseworker was unreachable, my caseworker argued that I didn't provide verification of address, and it was decided that I was correct. I was awarded food stamps from that moment on, plus back pay for the three months I had to go without.

In the the months of waiting, between applying and having a fair hearing, it was common for me to run out of food. I often had to make the decision which was more important, rent or food. When I could afford food I would buy the biggest bag of rice I could. Generally, all I could afford to eat was plain white rice with stolen condiments from my workplace's cafeteria. I looked forward to dates with my significant other, as he would usually take me out to eat. I specifically requested restaurants with enormous portions so that I could make the most of the meal. I am not proud of this. I stupidly refused to seek assistance from food pantries, due to a mixture of shame and guilt. I couldn't bear to call my mother to admit that my first foray into independence was fraught with difficulty. And so, I just shut up, rejected calls from bill collectors, and ate my plain rice. I lost over ten pounds. To this day, I find it exceptionally difficult to turn down free food, even if I'm not hungry. Food insecurity, no matter how temporary, changes you.

I am a single white woman with no children, and English is my first language. I can't imagine how I would manage under different, more difficult circumstances. How could I have survived this ordeal with a baby? What if I hadn't gone to college and didn't have the ability to speak well enough to my issues at my fair hearing? What if I didn't speak English at all? Through this experience I have become grateful for the advantages I have in life, and, through continued work in nonprofits, try to make sure that those who don't have it as easy are able to have a fair chance at life."