WESLACO, RGV – The Texas Health & Human Services Commission wants to get low-income families who seek food stamps to apply online.

This creates a challenge in areas such as the Rio Grande Valley where there is a larger than average number of people who do not own a computer or do not know how to use one.

In response HHSC is looking for local community partners, such as schools, libraries, churches, community health clinics, and non-profit organizations, who can help applicants by providing use of their computers or even provide navigators to help guide them through the process.

Elaine Hernandez
Elaine Hernandez

Elaine Hernandez, regional director of the Community Partner Recruitment Initiative for Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative, spoke about the issue during the public comment period of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s monthly meeting on Wednesday.

In a power-point presentation, Hernandez ran through some data which spoke to how socio-economically challenged the Rio Grande Valley is. She said that in one zip code area in Hidalgo County, which covers north McAllen, 17.9 percent of the people are food insecure and 37 percent of the children are food insecure. Nearly 30,000 people in this zip code area are potentially eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the new name for food stamps. But, of these only 49 percent received SNAP benefits. In one zip code area in Cameron County, 18 percent of the people were food insecure and 37 percent of the children were food insecure. Around 30,000 of people were eligible for assistance but only 57 percent of those 30,000 were covered, Hernandez said.

Hernandez said that in the three-county area covered by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council – Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties – $212 million a year is being left on the table because people do not apply for SNAP.

Hernandez asked the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council if it would help the Texas Hunger Initiative build a network of community partners who would partner with HHS, to help applicants apply for SNAP online. She said the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council could help by raising awareness. She suggested two ways of raising awareness. Firstly, by allowing the Texas Hunger Initiative to update the Council every six months on how many community partners have joined, and, secondly, by convening a tri-county summit of all the community agencies in the spring of 2016. She said Baylor University would likely sponsor the summit.

The board of directors for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council voted unanimously in favor of helping the Texas Hunger Initiative through these two suggestions.

At the conclusion of her presentation to the Council of Government, Hernandez gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian. She explained the importance of finding more community partners to help SNAP applicants.

“Health & Human Services wants to strengthen access to their electronic portal, which is YourTexasBenefits.com. Well, there are a lot of people that don’t have access to the Internet or don’t have computer skills. So, therefore, we are looking for community agencies and organizations like schools, libraries, churches, WIC clinics, housing authorities where they can provide some assistance in helping people fill out there application or renew their application online,” Hernandez said.

“As HHS wants to move away from paper applications, this will make the system much more efficient. After applying online, people are hearing from HHS within 24 hours. It used to take two weeks before you got your first call.”

Hernandez said the community partners would not be eligibility experts and would not be staffed by HHS. “They are just helping people apply. We never know what the outcome is of the application. It is none of our business. We just want to make sure that people have access online to the application process.”

Asked how many community partners HHS has in the Valley, Hernandez said: “Currently, we are growing in numbers in community partners and have Memorandums of Understanding with Health and Human Services. But, our goal is to maybe bring on board 200 more in this region. School districts, WIC clinics, housing authorities, churches, make excellent partners and so we also want to work very closely with the county commissioners in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy so that we can ensure that the county government also understands the value of this network of community partners that are assisting the families to apply online.”

Hernandez said the Texas Hunger Initiative is, for example, targeting high-poverty Census tracts in Hidalgo County where people may not be able to get into downtown McAllen to apply at a HHS office “If there is a church in their area or if there is a school campus or a WIC clinic out there, that is what we want to have them partner with Health & Human Services to obtain that access to a computer. Access means providing a computer so that someone can come in just use the computer themselves or have a navigator assist with the application process and help guide applicants on how to apply.”

Asked if she was surprised that the LRGVDC’s board of directors voted unanimously to support the community partner program, Hernandez said: “I know the power of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. They are very visionary, their role is strategic planning, so I thought that by bringing this notion of the three counties together and all the community partners in the three counties, perhaps then strategically we can see the value and the impact of all these organizations that are helping low-income families, make it visible.”

Asked if the goal of the project is to increase the number of SNAP applicants in the Valley, Hernandez said: “The goal is to have an access point within or very close to every high-poverty census tract, rather than the number of people who are going to apply. We are not into that. We just want the access points available so that people can apply online.”

Editor’s Note: In the main image accompanying this story are supporters of the Texas Hunger Initiative. Pictured from left to right are Linda Wasserman, outreach specialist for Texas Impact, Santos Hernandez, outreach specialist for Su Clinica in Harlingen, Elaine Hernandez, regional director of the Community Partner Recruitment Initiative for Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative, Amanda de la Fuente, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer helping Texas Impact as an outreach coordinator, and Liana Mendoza, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer helping Texas Impact as a community engagement specialist. They are pictured outside the Valley Transit Center in Weslaco. They had just attended a meeting of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.