How three women are revamping food stamps with texting

by Kate Rosow Chrisman
December 5, 2014


The women behind mRelief: Rose Afriyie, Marina Goldshteyn and Genevieve Nielsen

Text messaging just got a whole lot more useful for poverty-stricken Chicagoans. For many, the holiday season includes indulging in special treats and gaining a few too many pounds. But for too many people in Chicago, it’s a struggle just to get enough food. For those dealing with daily hunger and poverty, navigating the complex bureaucratic labyrinth to get help is difficult and time consuming, even when it works. A team of women who met at the Starter League Web Development Course decided to change that.

mRelief, a web and text messaging service helps Chicagoans determine if they are eligible for food stamp benefits (officially SNAP) before spending time in a government office. The project started when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office issued an open call at tech incubator 1871’s Open Government Hack Night to aid in social service delivery challenges. For Rose Afriyie, project manager at the startup, the issue of wait times struck a cord (it’s a key theme the mayor’s office is trying to fix).   

Not Your Typical Startup

mRelief knows that the bureaucratic process can be tough, but that super high-tech solutions aren’t always the best answer. A 2012 report by the Partnership for a Connected Illinois showed that 64 percent of the population doesn’t use smartphones, meaning spending time on developing creative and slick apps would be wasted on more than half the population.  Further research showed that text messages are read over 90 percent of the time, so “applying an SMS strategy locally in Chicago made perfect sense, “ said Afriyie.

The user experience is simple. Users can text “hello” or any other greeting to the phone number (773) 377-8946 to check their eligibility for food stamps. Users can also go to the programs page of their website and enter in some basic data. For those who don’t qualify for government assistance, mRelief teamed up with Purple Binder to provide other suggestions, such as local food banks. For those who don’t pass the pre-screen, the process takes just minutes, instead of completing detailed application forms, providing identifying documents and going to a government office for an interview only to be disappointed.

Simplifying the process was a crucial step in reaching their demographic. Part of that inspiration came from Afriyie's time living in Ghana, where she saw “awesome innovations that utilize text messaging particularly to solve problems like counterfeit pharmaceuticals (mPedigree) or difficulties transferring money (mPesa & mSika).”

In another departure from the typical startup, the core software development team is all women – a case still far too rare. “We are shattering stereotypes that women don't code and are using this superpower in partnership with Chicagoans in need to develop relevant technology that solves an actual problem,” said Afriyie.

The Nuts and Bolts

mRelief essentially adds a pre-screening step to an existing government process (before this innovation, there was no screening, meaning applicants had to endure the entire process before figuring out whether they were eligible), freeing up government workers to focus on their cases instead of paperwork. Data shows that 25 percent of those eligible for food stamps don’t participate in the program — mRelief wants to help those struggling families. 

The team isn’t stopping at food stamps; they plan to roll out SMS capability for RTA Ride Free, Medicaid and Medicare Cost Sharing within the next month.

Like any good tech company, the team evaluates user feedback, and users have found the process helpful so far. The government seems happy too. In a recent press release, Commissioner Evelyn Diaz of the Department of Family & Support Services said: “mRelief enables our staff to quickly connect more Chicagoans to benefits, putting more money in the pockets of residents in need.”

mRelief plans to keep innovating, to make access to essential government services easier for people to use. The big picture: the team hopes to “pioneer a data standard for food stamp eligibility, enabling apps to be built that are automatically updated with eligibility criteria,” said Afriyie.

Other goals include training those working on the ground on their product (they are expanding their presence into homeless shelters and libraries soon) and streamlining the qualifying process, potentially down to just one question.

A Friendlier Chicago

mRelief is a lesson in how to effectively leverage the community to make a great product. The company officially launched in October, but has already gained a lot of traction. Afriyie credits their success so far to the “awesome ecosystem” in Chicago. In the best way possible, this has been a collaboration of Chicago’s best minds and talent; Smart Chicago Collaborative provided seed funding through their Civic Works Project, Purple Binder made the referrals for non-qualifying people possible, the Legal Assistance Foundation act as subject matter experts for the team, Good City is the fiscal sponsor of mRelief’s nonprofit arm, and The Data Team at 1871 provided valuable connections. 

The Giving Season

mRelief is currently running a Fundly campaign.  For readers who want to support this work, Afriyie encourages you to check out their campaign. 

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