Barriers to SNAP

2021 Research Summary

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Released August 2021

Research summary of existing barriers and the role race and ethnicity play in the experience of Boston households accessing and utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

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Read the pdf report for a full look at our methodology and summary of existing barriers and the role race and ethnicity play in the experience of Boston households accessing and utilizing SNAP.

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SNAP enrollment went up 21.4% over the course of pandemic

from 786,749 people in February 2020 to 954,750 in May 2021

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most utilized nutrition assistance program in the US, and for good reason. The largest of the federal assistance programs, SNAP operates through established channels—namely, digital banking and our nation’s grocery industry. These efficiencies support the program’s unparalleled scale and reach.

Impact Stat Background

The Opportunity

659,340 people

are eligible but not enrolled in SNAP in MA

SNAP provides 9 meals

for every 1 meal a food bank provides.

Every $1 of SNAP benefits

generates an estimated $1.70 in economic activity.

3.2 million people

across the U.S. were lifted out of poverty by SNAP in 2020.

Yellow Stars Single Methodology

These findings reflect results from 823 individuals

Survey participants were recruited through outreach by community based organizations who partner with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Food Access. This represents one of three distinct data sets included in the project.

Our objectives were to measure SNAP awareness, to understand the perceptions that may impact a person’s willingness to enroll in the program, and to learn about the experiences of residents when using SNAP benefits, in order to identify common participation barriers that may contribute to SNAP’s underutilization.

Through the data, we see a household’s decision to seek resources is not simple—this finding is consistent with the experience of Project Bread’s hotline counselors as they provide personalized assistance to callers from across Massachusetts.

79.8% of respondents reported sometimes or often worrying that food in their household would run out before they had money to buy more.

The prevalence of food insecurity in the population surveyed far exceeded the state average of 19.6%.

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Yellow Stars Single Findings

Barriers to SNAP

Barriers to SNAP participation impacting the highest percentage of total survey respondents.

Computer Access

43% reported access to a computer being a concern when seeking food resources.


38.6% reported being concerned about being judged for using SNAP.

Application Difficulties

36.6% reported having difficulty with the application.

Lack of Awareness

31.8% reported knowing little or nothing about SNAP.

Despite survey respondents reporting they had experienced food insecurity at a rate of 79.8% in the preceding twelve months, 31.8% reported knowing a little or nothing at all about SNAP.


Beautiful young mother at home in the kitchen holding her newborn baby son, cooking, mixing something in pan (Beautiful young mother at home in the kitchen holding her newborn baby son, cooking, mixing something in pan. Starts Line


46% reported concerned about taking help away “from others who may need it more".

SNAP is a federal entitlement program. Meaning as long as a person meets the eligibility requirements, they have the legal right to receive SNAP.  Getting SNAP does not take away from anyone else's ability or opportunity to receive benefits. 


Three generations of Latina women cooking in the kitchen together Starts Line

I was on SNAP at one point last year but I closed my account because I didn’t want to take away help from someone else if they needed it more than I do.”

Senior FoodSource Hotline caller, Dorchester

senior women on pink background
Yellow Stars Single Racial Disparities

Racial Disparities

Disparities in survey response percentages by ethnicity.

Understanding that food insecurity does not exist in a vacuum, and that barriers to SNAP participation vary among different racial and ethnic groups, the results were further broken out to better understand disparities between various groups.

When looking more closely at these responses, a clear distinction appears between concerns among white respondents and concerns among Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC) respondents.

Highest among Latino/a & Asian respondents

Uncertain/racist immigration policies

When looking at responses to immigration concerns, among white respondents, 24.1% reported that they were afraid applying for SNAP would affect their immigration status,  a rate considerably lower than the rate among Lantino/a respondents (30.4%) and Asian respondents (38.4%).

Graph: Fear of immigration status being affected by SNAP Starts Line

Highest among Asian respondents

Ability to apply in a non-English language

Among white respondents, 26.6% reported that the ability to apply in a language other than English affected their decision to apply for SNAP, a rate that was significantly lower than that of Lantino/a (38.5%) and Asian (55.8%) respondents.

Graph: Application Language Impacting Decision to Apply Starts Line

This was hard for me because I was embarrassed at first.”

FoodSource Hotline caller who received over-the-phone SNAP application assistance, Framingham

Highest among Asian respondents


40.9% of white respondents reported concern about being judged for using SNAP, a rate that was significantly lower than that of Asian (51.7%) respondents.

Graph: Fear of Judgment Starts Line

Again and again, this research showed that households must weigh many different considerations when deciding whether to seek assistance.

It is clear that these considerations, like food insecurity itself, disproportionately affects households of color.

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How we can equitably increase access to SNAP

The following recommendations aim to show how we can equitably increase access to SNAP and ensure that anyone in Massachusetts who needs it, has the support they need to access food. Many of these recommendations are also included in the report, The State of Hunger, co-authored by Project Bread and Children's HealthWatch.



Large scale awareness campaigns can help to increase awareness and access for this critical program. Any awareness efforts must include information in a variety of languages and avenues and include cross-functional collaboration to best meet the dynamic and diverse needs of Massachusetts residents. Messaging in awareness efforts should address misconceptions that the public has about both the people who use SNAP and about the program. Community leaders should be engaged as trusted ambassadors and messengers.

Programatic Recommendations

  • The Commonwealth of Massachusetts should allocate funding received from the American Rescue Plan Act on a large-scale awareness campaign intended to increase awareness and utilization of SNAP.

  • Organizations with expertise in SNAP, including Project Bread, should continue to offer training and webinars to community organizations who can promote SNAP in their community.   


Make it easier to apply for SNAP

Efforts must be made to be more accessible to the people who need it and are facing numerous difficulties trying to understand the application in real time.

PROGRAMATIC Recommendations

  • Organizations working with populations facing food insecurity should promote SNAP application assistance resources, including resources for individuals who do not have a computer or for whom English is not their native language, such as Project Bread’s toll-free, confidential FoodSource Hotline, available in 180 languages, as well as SNAP Outreach Partners across the state and DTA Assistance Line. DTA should continue their efforts to make outreach materials and Assistance Line available in multiple languages.

  • DTA or UMass should continue recruitment to expand organizations that can promote SNAP in their communities, focusing on critical access points, such as schools.

POLICY Recommendations

  • Permanently amend Massachusetts’ state law by passing H.1290/S.761 to allow low-income households to apply for MassHealth/Medicare Savings Program and SNAP at the same time, and begin the process for creating a Common Application for all safety net programs

  • Reduce burdensome requirements in applying, accessing or renewing SNAP benefits by reducing paperwork and minimizing other barriers such as onerous verification and recertification processes. In response to COVID-19, waivers provided flexibility in administering SNAP; federal law should be passed to make these these waivers permanent and provide equitable access to SNAP.

  • Mitigate bias in the operations of federal and state assistance programs through agency investments in equitable access to program benefits by examining existing practices for potential bias, investing in staff training and supports, and adopting inclusion as a core operational principle at all levels.


Expand SNAP

Too many individuals and families across Massachusetts are facing food insecurity, but not currently eligible for SNAP, often because of either their immigration status or because of their income.  These individuals are instead having to rely on the emergency food system.  Recognizing that SNAP is the most effective anti-hunger program in the nation,

Policy Recommendations

  • Pass federal law to expand categories of immigrants eligible for SNAP without the five-year waiting period (currently, only some immigrants are eligible without a waiting period, like refugees and asylees).
  • Pass federal law to increase income thresholds for eligibility for SNAP so that more food-insecure, working families can access benefits.
  • Expand eligibility by eliminating the gross income test and remove the cap on shelter deductions and medical expansions.


Permanently increase SNAP benefits

SNAP benefits should reflect the real cost of a healthy diet and other expenses.

POLICY Recommendations

  • USDA should immediately evaluate and recommend changes to the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the basis for how SNAP benefit amounts are determined. USDA publishes food plans based on the consumer price index and the monthly amount calculated under the Thrifty Food Plan is intended to cover a household’s nutrition needs. Unfortunately, the nutrition science has not been updated for over 15 years and assumes that all food will be fully prepared at home, with families purchasing raw ingredients and making meals from scratch. This just does not match the needs or realities of most households, especially those in a high cost state like Massachusetts.
  • Congress should permanently increase SNAP benefits by authorizing USDA to use the Low Cost Food Plan instead of the Thrifty Food Plan. Even with a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, the design flaw of SNAP would still remain. SNAP benefits would better allow for a subsistence diet, but to solve food insecurity and poverty, families need more than a subsistence diet. By passing H.1290/S.761 to close the meal gap, Congress can help families access sufficient and nutritious food with the dignity of choice.
  • The Massachusetts Legislature should permanently authorize and fully fund the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP). HIP allows SNAP recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables directly from farmers. The amount spent is immediately added back to their EBT card to be spent at any SNAP retailer. While the program has been a tremendous success, to date it has only been authorized through the state budget. Making HIP a permanent program would ensure it’s long-term sustainability in serving SNAP clients.


Coordinate a national, comprehensive plan to address food insecurity

Programatic Recommendations

  • The White House should hold a conference on Hunger and Nutrition. The last, and only, White House Conference on Hunger was in 1969 and led to significant expansions of the Food Stamp Program, eventually transforming it to SNAP. A White House conference has the power of coordinating a powerful comprehensive strategy of how to solve hunger by bringing together federal and state agencies, academics, individuals with lived experience, and leaders from the various sectors. The White House should host a conference as soon as possible.


Normalize needing help

Programatic Recommendations

  • We must all—especially leaders—resist harmful rhetoric and policies and instead promote a collective tone of respect for all our neighbors that confronts and takes the place of racist, xenophobic, and bigoted rhetoric that perpetuates fear and exacerbates biases.


Decolonize Research & Data

Programatic Recommendations

  • Decolonize research by critically examining assumptions, research questions, and methodologies as well as the composition of research teams in order to actively deconstruct harmful practices within conventionally-designed research projects and prioritizing the inclusion and incorporation of community members themselves in order to ensure methodologies and findings reflect priorities of the community.
  • Promote data equity by disaggregating data and intentionally analyzing data—with attention to such things as race/ethnicity, gender, age, (dis)ability, and immigration status—to better understand the disproportionate impact policies and practices have on particular people and communities.
  • Congress and the Massachusetts Legislature should require USDA and the Department of Transitional Assistance to collect and disaggregate data by race/ethnicity, gender, age, (dis)ability, and immigration status as long as such data collection does not contribute to stigma.
Yellow Stars Single Summary

While the most common barriers included fear of taking assistance away from others, eligibility concerns, and stigma, it is important to note that almost all barriers were chosen at high rates—indicating a need for a larger look at SNAP accessibility and assistance. This also holds true when looking at responses by race and ethnicity. While some racial and ethnic groups may have indicated concerns at a higher rate, all respondent groups had a relatively high rate of concern around barriers. No group should be discounted in making SNAP more accessible

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Partners & Authors

Project Bread worked in partnership with UMass Boston’s Center for Survey Research, and with consultation from the Boston Mayor’s Office of Food Access, to better understand how Massachusetts residents living in low-income communities utilize food resources.

Authors: Erin McAleer; Laura Siller; Elizabeth Greenhalgh; Miriam Avila; Raina Searles; Khara Burns; Dragana Bolcic-Jankovic, PhD; Sarah Cluggish; Jennifer Lemmerman; Leran Minc