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Helping families get food on the table

Amy DeLaCruz works in outreach for Project Bread. She says the need she sees can be heartbreaking. Amy DeLaCruz works in outreach for Project Bread. She says the need she sees can be heartbreaking. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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Known as the “food stamp lady’’ by her clients, Amy DeLaCruz is an outreach worker in Chelsea and Boston for Project Bread, a nonprofit that fights hunger. Her job: help increase participation in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Food stamps have become a critical safety net program in a still-struggling economy beset by high unemployment, fewer opportunities, and stagnating wages, said DeLaCruz, 26, who visits health and social service centers encouraging people to apply for the program. But for many of her clients, working people who have always made it on their own, accepting such help is not easy.

“It’s heartbreaking. A lot of people find it hard to hold back tears,’’ she said. “They’re stuck in something so horrific they can’t see the light.’’

Do you have an experience with a family or individual that makes you say, “This is why I do what I do?’’

Today I spoke with a 35-year-old single mom from Haiti who was finding it hard to find a job because she was pregnant. She is paying for rent and utilities with her savings, but her money is dwindling down. It was music to her ears to hear that she would be able to receive help getting food for her two young children.

What drew you to this kind of outreach program?

After college, I was a volunteer in Honduras, helping to alleviate malnutrition among villagers. I came back to the US to find that hunger is also very real here.

How many applications do you fill out monthly on behalf of your clients?

Project Bread processes about 218 applications a month. As with many government-run programs, the qualification requirements can be complex. But there are a lot of myths. Some immigrants say things like, “I don’t want the government to take my children if they find out I am undocumented.’’ In reality, noncitizens and their families can qualify for the program. It’s separate from the immigration process.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Not always being able to provide as much as I would like to. People tell me their life stories, and they don’t just have issues with food insecurity; it’s abuse, money, child care dilemmas, and a whole list of problems. Some just need someone to talk with and help them figure out the next step.

Do you hate throwing away food ?

I do. I yell at my niece and sister and scold them, “Take only what you are going to eat.’’ So many people in this country would love to have that food.