Tech startups are trying to revamp the outdated, underfunded infrastructure feeding 43 million Americans.

Charlie Heller
September 06, 2017

Silicon Valley is setting its sights on a less-served sector of the food world: the 43 million Americans receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. The stamps themselves were fully phased out in favor of debit card-style Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Cards in 2004, but a growing group of tech startups are trying to push the field further with apps like FreshEBT, as detailed today by Wired.

To qualify for SNAP, a household's income must be at or 130 percent of the poverty line, meaning users have not historically been first in line for the kind of technological innovation the tech industry has put into more lucrative food services like delivery. Still, a combination of public and private funding, in-app advertising, and partnerships with major chains has helped fuel a field of start-ups hoping to address underfunded and outdated infrastructure, which is run at a state level. With average SNAP benefits per person coming in around $126 per month, or $1.40 per meal, increased usability can mean the difference between eating or not. Here's how:

1. Checking Balances

For years, reports Wired, food stamp users would have to dial a hotline and enter a lengthy card number in order to check their remaining balance for the month. FreshEBT, from venture capital-funded startup Propel, is one of several apps that allow time-pressed users to quickly check what they can afford.

2. Enrollment

In 2014, nearly half of eligible Californians didn't receive food stamps due to low enrollment. Nonprofit Code For America's CalFresh program helped the state revamp its system, by, among other things, replacing easily missed snail mail with text message reminders to renew their enrollment, and cutting a 200 question application to a ten-minute questionnaire.

3. Tech Support

Whether long outdated or recently upgraded, the food stamp system can be baffling to navigate. CalFresh's in-house team offers SMS-based bilingual support for users new and old, and Chicago startup Panacea aims to connect users to other community services via text

4. Breaking Down Spending

A Duke University study found that on average, SNAP users will have spent their entire monthly benefits in only 21 days. With app-based weekly budgeting tools, though, they lasted two more days, which, while not covering the month, was at least six additional meals.

5. Smartphone Dependence

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans making less than $30,000 are highly likely to be "smartphone dependent," meaning a smartphone is their only form of internet access at home. CalFresh found that up to half of searches for their app came from mobile phones, which couldn't even access California's previous SNAP site. Smartphones may seem like an upscale product, but in reality, many food stamp recipients depend on them for needs as basic as food. For them, the compatibility offered by these new services, which also include NYC's Access HRA Mobile app, and Propel's Easy Food Stamps site, is a critical part of every meal.