Volunteers and the food stamp program

Volunteers and the food stamp program

Dianne Durant

In communities across the country, volunteers help hospitals, schools, churches, and charitable organizations provide needed services. In a number of areas, food stamp managers are finding that with careful planning, volunteers can be used successfully with the Food Stamp Program as well.

While volunteers can’t be used for regular staff functions that involve cetification or issuance, for reasons of confidentially and security, there are many things they can do. For instance, they can:

* help people fill out applications and understand which documents they need to verify information;

* give people rides to and from food stamp offices and grocery stores;

* help food stamp clients plan meals, shop, and cook;

* help paid staff with filing, telephone coverage, and special projects like mass mailings.

Volunteers can be used more

Tim Grace, president of the national association of food stamp directors, feels volunteers could be used more. “At this time,” he says, “you’re going to be hard pressed to find a lot of states that use voluntees. But I think it is something we can and want to do, especially with nutrition education.”

As food stamp director in Illinois, Grace has started a new initiative to work more closely with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) located at the University of Illinois. Through EFNEP, Grace expects to be making use of volunteers to teach people about food and nutrition, using the new “Make Your Food Dollars Count” materials developed by USDA for food stamp recipients and other low-income people.

“EFNEP and the food stamp staff have been working with the same people for years, we just haven’t been working togeher and we want to change that,” Grace says.

According to Grace and other food stamp managers, food stamp offices have had varying degrees of success using volunteers. Roy Clark, assistant food stamp director in Columbia, South Carolina, says, “Half of our offices would say they work with volunteers real well. The other half would say, ‘I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.’

“Some counties have had bad experiences with volunteers. The volunteers would come in for 2 or 3 days, and then they’d lose interest.”

Good management makes a difference

To guarantee reliability, many state, county, and charitable agencies hire paid volunteer coordinators whose sole job it is to work with volunteers. According to Martha Martin, of the National Association of Volunteer Administrators, a volunteer coordinator works much like a personnel officer.

“A volunteer coordinator helps you place the right person in the right job, works with you to provide training, and guarantees reliability,” she says. “Good volunteer coordinators make the volunteers understand that this is a commitment, no different from any other job. In fact, some volunteer coordinators have their volunteers sign job contracts.”

Dahlene Shen, volunteer coordinator for Oregon, agrees that the key to using volunteers is good screening and training. “Every volunteer has a motive for volunteering,” she says. “The closer you can match their motives or needs with your assignments, the better off you’re going to be.”

Shen supervises a paid staff of county volunteer coordinators who find and manage volunteers at the local level. Each county in Oregon has a volunteer coordinator.

“We help with all service programs in the state–Medicaid, Aid for Families with Dependent Children, children’s services,” says Shen. Funding for the volunteer coordinators comes equally from state and federal sources. Part of their federal funding comes from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Title 19 because of the work they do transporting clients to medical appointments; part comes from a social service block grant.

“We also have volunteers taking the clients to food stores, as well as showing them how to make their food dollars stretch with shopping tips. We also have volunteers who wor with cooking, which is especially helpful for some young clients.”

Like Tim Grace, Shen feels the new “Make Your Food Dollars Count” materials will be a catalyst for using volunteers more. The “Make Your Food Dollars Count” materials include a slide show, posters, and pamphlets with smart shopping tips.

“I’m sure we’ll be having volunteers organizing and doing actual training with these materials,” Shen says. “It’s an excellent way to use volunteers.”

Some advice on getting started

For agencies interested in using volunteers, a good place to start is seeing how other organizations have set up their volunteer programs.

According to Steve McCurley, from a national nonprofit organization called “Volunteer–the National Center,” a first step is contacting an already existing volunteer organizaion you might work through. These organizations could include, for example, the United Way, the Red Cross, or a voluntary action center. State volunteer coordinators may be especially helpful.

“Right now,” says McCurley, “about half the states have statewide volunteer coordinators. They are usually attached to the state department of human services or the governor’s office, and they make a big difference. North Carolina, for instance, is about 5 years ahead of everyone else in using volunteers because of their strong state-wide program.”

Most large cities, and all caital cities, have volunteer action centers, according to McCurley. They should be able to help set up a volunteer program and may even manage it, or they may recruit someone to become volunteer manager.

Agencies considering large-scale, long-term volunteer programs may consider adding a person to their paid staff as a volunteer coordinator. “It’s just like anything else,” says McCurley, “if you have good people managers, you’ll have good results.”

The next steps in setting up a volunteer program:

* Plan the job. Work with a volunteer coordinator to assess your needs. Says Oregon coordinator Shen: “Make sure the needs are there and that they are well defined. I don’t know how many times programs have been developed that people thought would be real nice, but then nobody used them.”

* Enlist the support of management. “If you don’t have internal support,” says Shen, “your volunteer program is going to fail.” In Oregon, for instance, the volunteer program relies on having clients referred from paid staff. Shen makes sure paid staff know what kind of services the volunteers can provide.

* Write up job descriptions. Analyze the job and how it should be done as carefully as you would a paid staff job. Part of this process, according to Shen, includes working with paid staff to make sure their positions are not undermined by volunteers.

* Recruit and screen. Work with your volunteer coordinator to try to make sure you have the right volunteer in the right job.

* Place and train. Analyze the training that needs to be done and work with the volunteer coordinator to see that time is devoted to training. “One of the biggest errors that’s made,” Shen says, is throwing volunteers into assignments without much background or training and just expecting them to pick up the job and do it.”

* Supervise and evaluate. “Volunteers are just like paid staff,” Shen concludes, “they need supervision and constant reinforcement and recognition from the people they are working for.”

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