Last updated: June 01. 2013 2:39AM - 851 Views
Linda Burchette

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Ashe County Department of Social Services Food and Nutrition Services unit was recently chosen as a winner of the national Hunger Champion award.

In September, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the 2011 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Hunger Champion Award recipients. The awardees demonstrate exemplary service conducting outreach activities and assisting eligible clients to obtain nutrition benefits.

Only four Gold Champion awards were given across the entire nation with Ashe County DSS receiving one of the four.

Karen Riddle, FNS Supervisor, and Brandi Legge, Outreach Caseworker, attended the American Association of SNAP Directors Conference in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 11 to accept the award on behalf of the Ashe County DSS and speak to SNAP directors from across the nation about the innovative work that had been done in Ashe County to assist those in need. The other Gold Champions were Hanover County DSS in Asheland, Va., Portland Metro Processing Center in Portland, Ore., and San Bernardino County Transitional Assistance Department, San Bernardino, Calif.

Ashe County DSS realized several years ago that there were many citizens who were potentially eligible to receive food assistance that were not participating in the program with many of these being over the age of 60. To increase program participation, Ashe County DSS partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank of NWNC through a grant from Feeding America to place an experienced caseworker in various rotating locations over the period of 10/1/10 9/30/11 to complete food assistance applications and conduct interviews. These were locations such as Second Harvest partner agencies and food pantries, community centers, rural fire departments, Ashe Family Central, BROC, The Sharing Center, Ashe Memorial Hospital, the Ashe County Health Department, the Ashe County Public Library and other rural areas. Referrals were also accepted for home visits from Hospice and other agencies that deal with homebound citizens.

Brandi Legge was the caseworker given the mission of reaching those citizens who could not get into the courthouse to complete a food assistance application at DSS headquarters. What she discovered was that many people did not have transportation for the long trek into Jefferson, which could be more than an hour from some Ashe County locations. She also learned that many people simply did not want to ask for help and were too embarrassed or afraid to come into the courthouse.

Legge knew that she had to tailor her presentation to help break down these barriers. Many people she encountered had always been self-sufficient and did not want to ask for, what they deemed, a hand-out. She was able to explain that EBT benefits could be used to purchase bedding plants and seeds for home gardens which allowed recipients to maintain a level of self-sufficiency. This turned out to be a very important strategy in counteracting what has long been describe as mountain pride and appealed to those who wish not to rely completely on others.

Legge was able to build trust and relationships that allowed her to explain other benefits available to low income households. Eventually, many sought and accepted assistance from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, the Medicaid program for getting Medicare premiums paid and other programs, in some cases doubling a households net income. Over 50 percent of the completed applications contained a household member who was elderly.

Donna Weaver, director of Ashe County DSS, stated, We are honored to be recognized for our work but, more importantly, we are proud of the positive impact and increased effectiveness we were able to achieve by having this outreach worker dedicated to rural areas of the county. We plan to continue focusing on special outreach programs even though the food bank grant funding has expired.

According to FNS Supervisor, Karen Riddle, If someone is in need of our services, they simply need to get in touch with us. Even though we are no longer able to place a worker in remote locations due to the end of grant funding on 9/30/11, we will find a way to serve anyone who would like to apply. If you let us know what barriers you are experiencing, we will find a way to work around that barrier.

If you would like further information, please call the DSS Food & Nutrition Services office at 846-5721. Information and tools to apply for benefits can also be accessed at www.FNS4NC.org or www.usda.gov.

(Article prepared by Karen Riddle, Food and Nutrition Supervisor with Ashe DSS, and provided by Lynda McDaniel, chair of the DSS board.)
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