Elizabeth Perez, Washington State Department of Health Chief of Public Affairs and Equity, says her agency’s Amazon Web Services partnership speeds food to those in need.

Jan 11 2024

State Agencies Cut Red Tape to Address Food Insecurity with Cloud Solutions

Service providers improve distribution identification and speed of benefits to eligible citizens.

Food insecurity is a perpetual problem, one that affects citizens across the country and that governments struggle with every day. In Washington, the state Department of Health has found an effective solution for awarding benefits that tackle the problem.

Citizens in Washington who meet certain income guidelines are eligible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Program participants receive monetary SNAP benefits on an electronic benefit transfer card that they can use to buy groceries at authorized stores.

The Washington State Department of Health administers a program called SNAP Produce Match. Since 2017, SNAP shoppers in the state have received a $5 coupon each time they spend at least $10 on produce at any one of hundreds of different stores. They can use that money — now $10 back thanks to additional state funding — for future purchases at the same store or in the same chain.

Until 2022, SNAP Produce Match was primarily available in Washington’s brick-and-mortar stores, but it was soon expanded to Amazon Fresh, which also offered its online delivery service. This new twist to the program, says Elizabeth Perez, Washington State DOH Chief of Public Affairs and Equity, makes it the first initiative in the state to leverage cloud-based technologies to distribute food to citizens.

The cloud-based solution capitalizes on the power of Amazon Web Services by ensuring that all citizens who are eligible can cut through red tape to receive their benefits efficiently.

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With Cloud Power, Agencies Award Benefits Quickly

The Washington Department of Health partnered with AWS during the pandemic to build an online platform that residents could use to order free at-home COVID-19 test kits. Success there led the agency to explore other ways that cloud solutions might help it better connect with state residents, and it soon teamed up with the company again to integrate Amazon Fresh with SNAP Produce Match.

“It was a big deal in the middle of the pandemic because it allowed people to get fruits and vegetables delivered at a time when many really needed to stay home,” Perez says. “Now it’s more about improving access and equity, and meeting customers and communities where they are.”

Since the launch of the SNAP Produce Match program, shoppers in Washington state have used the cash they’ve received to buy nearly $9 million worth of produce, and they’ve already redeemed more than 13,000 coupons in just 12 months through Amazon Fresh. Perez and her colleagues at the DOH hope to increase those numbers substantially by improving outreach to rural communities, where grocery stores are few and far between.

It's estimated that 1 in 10 people in Washington state face food insecurity, and 1 in 7 children are affected by hunger. It’s statistics like those that lend urgency to her agency’s mission and drove it to partner with a tech company such as AWS, Perez says.

“I know the perception sometimes can be that government agencies tend move slowly, but I don’t think anyone can say that’s true of us,” she says.

LEARN MORE: State and local agencies should seize the moment to enhance digital services.

Elizabeth Perez
I know the perception sometimes can be that government agencies tend move slowly, but I don’t think anyone can say that’s true of us.”

Elizabeth Perez Chief of Public Affairs and Equity, Washington State DOH

Thanks to Cloud, Agencies Improve Data Matching for Benefits

Those who think that state governments should pick up the pace of their tech adoption would do well to talk with Jessica Maneely, assistant director of process innovation at the American Public Human Services Association. At least when it comes to the delivery of public benefits to citizens who need them, a growing number of state agencies are now using cloud solutions such as the one deployed by Washington state, she says.

APHSA administers a grant program called Coordinating SNAP and Nutrition Supports (CSNS), funded by an organization called Share Our Strength, to align SNAP with other initiatives focused on fighting food insecurity, Maneely says.

“A major component of this work has been data matching and sharing across agencies to identify who’s eligible but not currently participating in a program,” she says. “We’re trying to improve cross-enrollment so more families who need nutritional support actually get that support.”

In one effort tailored to that goal, CSNS is helping states migrate functions of eligibility systems into cloud-based architectures. In Kansas, for instance, the CSNS grant supported collaboration between two Kansas state agencies — the Department of Health and Environment and the Department for Children and Families — to move their Kansas Eligibility Enforcement System off a legacy IT infrastructure and onto Oracle Government Cloud.

Cloud infrastructure combined with cross-agency data storage and visualizations simplified data matching between the state’s SNAP program and its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Maneely says. The new system went live in January 2020, and ultimately allowed Kansas to rapidly scale benefits distribution when the pandemic drove increased demand for nutritional support.

“In the past, it typically took anywhere from six months to two years to execute a data-sharing agreement and get started with the matching and identifying of beneficiaries,” she says. A data lake, however, can pull information from multiple programs for analysis by tools in the Oracle Cloud.

“Advanced tech like cloud technologies, and the data lake used by Kansas specifically, can transition historically manual processes into more automated processes that are quicker and easier for agency staff,” Maneely says.

READ MORE: Governments make data-driven decisions with hybrid cloud.

“There’s nothing for applicants to do on their end. We just call them and schedule an appointment, because we already have their information in the system,” she says.

While the new technology has been a boon for New Mexico citizens, it’s also paid dividends for her department, Flores-Sievers says. For one, the IT team no longer has an expensive in-house system to maintain; second, when WIC staff meet with clients, they don’t have to waste valuable time filling out redundant paperwork, or even stay at their desks.

“Being in the cloud, we can serve our families anywhere, which is really important in a rural state like New Mexico, where transportation is a huge issue,” she says. Today, WIC employees go to grocery stores and local fairs to share information about the program and enroll people on the spot.

Since rolling out the new platform in May 2022, New Mexico WIC’s caseload has increased by more than 10,000 clients. The program currently serves just over 37,000 people per month, which Flores-Sievers notes is a “significant improvement” but still falls short of where the agency would like to be.

“We know that we can always do better,” she says. “The good news is that we’re making progress every day.”

$1.2 billion

The amount authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act for state agencies to modernize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program administration

Source: urban.org, “Exploring States’ SNAP Modernization Projects,” May 2, 2023

Cloud Efficiency Is a Boon for Citizens and Agencies

Sarah Flores-Sievers, WIC and Farmers Market Director at the New Mexico Department of Health, is well versed in the perks that come with delivering public benefits through the cloud.

Up until two years ago, New Mexico required citizens to go through separate administrative processes to enroll in programs such as WIC, SNAP and Medicaid. Sign-ups were cumbersome and time-consuming, and as a result, many qualified people wound up left out of the programs.

Flores-Sievers says that everything changed when the state began working with Microsoft to develop an integrated eligibility system. Built on the cloud-based Microsoft Azure and funded through a grant from the APHSA, the system connects New Mexico WIC with programs administered by the New Mexico Human Services Department. This initiative was also funded through an APHSA CSNS grant.

Now, if a patient is enrolled in Medicaid, for example, they’re automatically identified as someone who may also be eligible to participate in WIC, Flores-Sievers says.

Photography by Jay Fram

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