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Closing the hunger gap
New grant helps local agencies reach further, serve more
Pastor Samuel Rodriguez hopes to help more Spanish speakers be aware of federal food benefits.

Pastor Samuel Rodriguez is used to people knocking on the back door.

The leader of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana off Ogeechee Road always welcomes those in need of spiritual guidance. But he also knows that the most important thing he can do for some of the souls seeking help is to get them fed.

A hub for Savannah's diverse Hispanic community (it counts members from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and almost every other Central and South American country), La Iglesia is a humble set of brick buildings surrounded by well-tended flower beds, a shaded playground and pen housing a friendly donkey and a pot-bellied pig.

It is often the first stop for native Spanish speakers when they come to Savannah seeking jobs, sometimes with nothing more than a shopping bag of their belongings. In addition to English classes, a free medical clinic and childcare, the church has a small food closet full of cereal and potatoes that it doles out to families in need.

"These people come here for a better life, they are hard workers," says Pastor Rodriguez. "We do as much as we can to support them."

Many of Primera Iglesia constituents work on construction sites or as domestics, earning low wages that keep them under the poverty line. While some have immigrated to the U.S. illegally, others — who instinctively stay under the radar out of fear or doubt in their ability to communicate in English — may qualify for government assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The challenge is letting them know they're eligible for the programs.

This week Pastor Rodriguez received the good news that help is on the way. A new grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service has awarded Step Up Savannah $90,000 to help widen its SNAP outreach efforts to seniors, children and those with limited English proficiency. Part of the grant will pay for a part-time employee to educate Step Up's many direct service partners about the SNAP enrollment process, including Primera Iglesia.

"To have someone come and explain person to person, in Spanish, what the requirements are, that will help a lot," says the pastor, who emigrated to Savannah from Guadalajara, Mexico 17 years ago.

Formerly known as the federal food stamp program, SNAP provides supplemental income that can only be spent on certain approved consumable goods. Bread, cereal, dairy products, fruits and vegetables and even seeds to grow more food are on the list; alcohol, tobacco and non-food items are not. An estimated 46 million people are enrolled in SNAP though only 67% of all those eligible actually participate in the program.

"People don't understand that this isn't only for the destitute or the homeless," says Suzanne Donovan of Step Up Savannah.

"This benefit is intended to help families who at the end of the month aren't able to provide meals for their tables."

According to, almost two million Georgians are "food insecure" — meaning they lack access to enough nutrition for an active, healthy life. In Chatham County, 22.6 percent of children live in food insecure households. The website points out that these homes don't necessarily experience nutritional scarcity all the time, but the numbers reflect the hard choices that many must make between buying nourishing food and paying for medical expenses, gas and/or housing.

In addition to AARP members, schoolchildren and the Hispanic community, Step Up Savannah also wants to target another population: The low-wage employees working at entry level or service jobs throughout Chatham County. Many of these full- and part-time employees have no idea that they could "stretch their paychecks" with supplemental aid, even though an adult with one dependent working 40 hours a week for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is far below the poverty line. The new grant will allow a representative to educate more minimum-wage workers that staff certain corporate chain stores about SNAP.

Pastor Rodriguez believes the Step Up grant will help some of his congregants create more stable lives in Savannah, though he says many who knock on the back door of La Iglesia can't believe that state agencies would give them money for food.

"In the countries where we come from, no one receives this kind of help from the government," he laughs a bit ruefully.

Federal aid programs continue to be a politically-charged topic in Washington D.C. and state capitols and a touchy subject when it comes to budget cuts. For now, the SNAP program continues to be funded, its direct service partners working to reach the country's food insecure and close the hunger gap.

"Some people try to frame it in moral terms, as if these people aren't working hard enough or don't deserve the help," says Donovan. "But the fact is that it's a benefit that as a society we've decided to keep paying for.

"The people who are eligible should know about it and make their own decisions."