Bridging the SNAP Gap: addressing essential needs beyond food

Food insecurity has been and remains a serious issue across the nation. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), initiated in 1933, stands as a critical federal program designed to support low- and no-income individuals and families in accessing essential food items. Currently, 2 million Pennsylvanians benefit from SNAP food assistance.

Yet, while SNAP benefits have been a lifeline for so many, it’s important to recognize that not all essential items that families need are covered. At United Way, we call this the “SNAP gap” — the shortfall that occurs when essentials that people need aren’t SNAP-eligible.

“Many people are surprised to learn that SNAP benefits, while critically important to healthy nutrition, do not apply to essential personal items that allow people to show up with dignity and confidence,” said Sally Ellwein, director of Meeting Basic Needs at United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. SNAP Gap items include shampoo, household and cleaning supplies, medicine and even period products.

Overcoming this gap is a challenge for many families in southwestern Pennsylvania, impacting their overall well-being and their budgets.

The inability to afford essentials like diapers and period products can have long lasting effects. For instance, pads and tampons can cost $18-$20 a month. Not having period products may force those who need these items to miss school or work. The high cost of diapers, averaging $80-$100 a month per child, places a real strain on low-income and working families, potentially affecting their finances and mental health.

At United Way, meeting basic needs is one of our investment priorities. We invest in partner agencies across southwestern Pennsylvania that are working hard to narrow the SNAP Gap, by providing essential items to families and individuals.

Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank is one such local organization committed to assisting families with young children. Their diaper distribution program ensures that parents can keep their babies clean, healthy and dry. This isn’t the only SNAP Gap need that they address. Since their founding in 2012, the Diaper Bank has also met the call for access to period products, books for children, incontinence products for older adults and essential items for students.

Global Links is another partner agency bridging the SNAP gap. Founded in 1989, this program found a way to collect surplus medical supplies and materials from US hospitals and then provides these materials to public health systems in communities that lack resources.

In addition to collecting and redistributing items such as good-condition wheelchairs, unopened wound care supplies, incontinence supplies and shower chairs, Global Links works in partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to provide diapers, shampoo and other essentials to those who are receiving food from the food bank.

Your contributions to United Way’s Impact Fund make it possible for us to strategically support agencies like Global Links and the Diaper Bank, which have proven effective at meeting the basic needs of our community. Your support for our Impact Fund benefits agencies that are bridging the SNAP Gap and empowers families to worry less about basic needs so they can concentrate more on prioritizing their health and wellness, move to financial stability and build for success in school and life.