Every month, an unusual safety net sweeps through pockets of poverty in Anoka County and scoops up 40 or 50 people in need of food.
"These are people who otherwise would fall through the cracks, people who need help right now," said Jerry Vitzthum, director of the county's Economic Assistance Department. They are quickly enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps.
On Tuesday, the county will receive an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its effort, which pairs county outreach worker Sonya Traisci with specialists from two nonprofits. It will be presented by Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.
Now in its second year, the program sends teams of workers to food shelves, subsidized senior housing and other places to find people who are eligible but not signed up for food stamps.
In face-to-face sessions, workers from the nonprofits help clients fill out the eight-page applications and supporting information. That leaves Traisci free to plug the data into her computer and quickly enroll clients, some within two or three days, instead of two or three weeks.
"Working with Sonya makes all the difference. We're so much more effective with her beside us," said Cathey Weid-mann of the Anoka County Community Action Program, one of the partners. The other is Second Harvest food bank.
About 517,000 Minnesotans are on the program, each getting about $118 a month. But one-third of the eligible, including two-thirds of those age 60 and older, are not signed up.
The state and the USDA have launched efforts to enroll more. Heartland and Community Action get USDA grants to help with outreach. The county gets no extra aid for Traisci's time.
"But we're getting people we wouldn't get any other way," Vitzthum said. "The award means the USDA wants other places to see if this would work for them like it does for us."
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