Ten years ago, at the peak of the Great Recession, Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida was looking for options to respond to the rising demand for food in our community. Unemployment in Florida was at 10.7%, and had the second highest number of home foreclosures in the nation. Food pantry distribution reached 732,000 people - a 152% increase - which equated to approximately 20% of our population in need of food assistance. There simply weren’t enough resources to meet the need. We learned that more than $150 million in food stamps in Central Florida weren’t allocated, a consequence of the application process going from an in-person model to an electronic system. Transportation and literacy challenges, lack of access to a computer and/or difficulties navigating an online application were, and still are, the main barriers to successfully applying. An Advisory Board was convened to plan the design of a direct service alternative to assist potential applicants to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps, at locations closest to the areas of highest need.
In 2008, the Benefits Connection Program originated as a mobile SNAP outreach program operating from different locations in Orange County through the generous support of the Morgridge Family Foundation. In 2009, United Way of Brevard provided funding to help extend the program to Brevard County, and services to Volusia County were also added. That year, with additional funding from the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Benefits Connection finally covered Second Harvest’s 6-county service area, which includes Seminole, Osceola and Lake Counties. Additional support came from the Universal Orlando Foundation and Winter Park Health Foundation, which funded a senior outreach initiative and helped expand the reach of this program. Six months into the program, about half of all the SNAP applications were denied due mainly to the applicants not completing the program’s required phone interview. DCF was receiving 2 million calls per month which presented an immense challenge. With the support of the Advisory Board and DCF, a Demonstration Project from the USDA was requested and approved to allow Benefits Connection staff to conduct the interview on behalf of the State. This was a significant turning point for the Benefits Connection Program and our community.
Today Benefits Connection operates in Orange and Brevard Counties and provides a full array of services to the community, including personalized SNAP application assistance and interview, follow-up, directly scanning documents to the DCF system, SNAP education, and information and referrals. Despite funding challenges, this important program continues to provide millions of dollars of benefits to Central Florida families.