Vivian Whitlock looked in her refrigerator and felt a flash of panic. Her hours as an in-home care provider had been cut in half because of covid-19, and her entire paycheck went toward rent and utilities.

There was no money left for groceries.

“I was really worried,” said Whitlock, 62, who lives alone in Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago. “When I went to the store for the first time after losing half my pay, I had a reality check. I ended up buying a lot of ramen noodles because my money wouldn’t stretch far enough.”

Whitlock said she wanted to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — also known as food stamps — but she was intimidated because she had heard stories about the winding application process and impossible wait times.

Then, while browsing Facebook in late April, she came across a post from a Chicago organization called mRelief about their text message-based app that quickly helps people find out whether they qualify for SNAP benefits, and also helps them apply.

In the past six years, the nonprofit has helped more than 700,000 people across the country connect to potentially lifesaving benefits benefits online or by texting the word “food” to the number 74544.

The need for this kind of service is acute: An estimated 22 percent of the population is food-insecure since the pandemic hit, according to an April report by the Hamilton Project, an economic policy project of the Brookings Institution. That includes a whopping 41 percent of mothers with children 12 and younger. But last year, just 12 percent of Americans received SNAP benefits to help them fill their cupboards.

Whitlock said that when she texted for help, she quickly received a call back.

“That very day, a nice lady took all my information and said she’d mail me a food stamp card,” she said. “I thought I’d hear whether I was approved in a month or two.”

Instead, said Whitlock, she learned the next day that her application had been approved, and she found a benefits card in her mailbox to cover $194 in groceries for the month a few days after that.

“Hallelujah! I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I went straight to the store and loaded up on fresh vegetables and fruit, coffee, cornmeal, oatmeal, grits, spaghetti sauce, bacon and eggs.”

The SNAP app used by Whitlock was developed six years ago by Rose Afriyie and Genevieve Nielsen, co-founders of the mRelief nonprofit.

It helps people who don’t know how to approach the system by asking them to answer 10 simple questions via text message, then telling them whether they’re eligible for the SNAP program — which is a federal initiative but is administered locally by states or counties.

If they are eligible, they can apply online or mRelief will direct them to a SNAP office in their community so an agent can help them complete the process over the phone. (Because of the pandemic, office appointments have been suspended.)

In Chicago, though, people have the option of completing the entire process without dealing with the government maze.

MRelief works with Catholic Charities of Chicago, a SNAP community partner, giving applicants the choice to receive a call from one of the agency’s caseworkers, eliminating hold times and streamlining the process to about 15 minutes.

Catholic Charities then forwards completed applications to Cook County food stamp offices for final approval within a few days.

“The process is much faster because the screeners we use with Catholic Charities of Chicago greatly simplify the questions when a person applies,” said Nielsen, 28.

Nielsen has long been interested in public policy and technology, and she and Afriyie, 36, came up with the idea for their app in 2014 after taking a computer coding class together in Chicago.

Monthly applications referred by mRelief’s app have increased from 24,000 before the pandemic to more than 40,000 monthly since March, Afriyie said.

“A lot of people are living on the margins,” Nielsen said.

She and Afriyie recently teamed up with several local charities and food banks to give applicants free $25 restaurant gift cards.

“More than anything, we want to put dignity back into human services,” Nielsen said. “It’s sobering to realize how much need there is out there, but it’s gratifying to hear back from people who say this was the best experience in applying for assistance that they’ve ever had.”

Before their app was introduced, she said, the average SNAP applicant in the Chicago area had to fill out a 20-page application or answer questions over the phone for 90 minutes, then submit nearly a dozen documents to find out whether they qualified for help.

“There are millions of people in the U.S. who qualify for food stamps, but don’t realize they’re able to get them,” Afriyie said. “This is an easy way for anyone to find out.”

She and Nielsen also hope to minimize a stigma that some might feel is associated with waiting in long lines and asking for help through SNAP.

“Our goal is to take away some of that stress and ensure that anybody can access the safety net,” Nielsen added.

For Chicago’s Patricia Jones, quick access to SNAP assistance has meant not going hungry after the money from her monthly disability check runs out, she said.

“The last time I applied for assistance (without the app), it dragged on for 45 days and there were times when I didn’t get enough to eat,” said Jones, 69, a former certified nursing assistant. “I just needed a little help — it was very frustrating.”

When she learned about mRelief, she filled out the application on her phone.

“They got back to me in two days and I thought, ‘Is this real — how can this be?’ ” Jones said. “I was so grateful.”

When she was growing up in Chicago, Jones said, people in her neighborhood did not ask for government help with groceries, because “everyone looked out for their neighbors.”

“My mama and my grandma made sure that anyone who was hungry had a good meal,” she said. “It didn’t matter who they were. Now, we’re lucky if we even know who our neighbors are.”

With many neighborhoods now full of people experiencing hunger, Afriyie said mRelief is trying to bridge the gap to help them put food on their tables.

“This is about the idea of technology at the intersection of human compassion,” she said. “Nobody in this country should ever have to go hungry.”

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