The Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership (MARP) and Brooklyn-based tech company Benefit Kitchen have launched a free web tool to connect low-income Fort Greene and Clinton Hill residents with local businesses that offer free, discounted or sliding-scale services.
The online screening tool first launched in 2015 and allows residents to anonymously enter information like income, marriage status and family size to find state, local and federal benefits they are eligible for.
In 2017, Benefit Kitchen and MARP developed a hyperlocal pilot version, The Benefit Kitchen on Myrtle Avenue. Since its launch, hundreds of low-income Brooklyn residents have used the tool to screen for perks like $5 monthly Citi Bike rentals, free yoga classes at Sacred Brooklyn, discounted eyeglasses from DC Optics and $30 farmers market vouchers from Whitman Pharmacy.
Of course, users could determine their eligibility for benefits by simply applying for them, but that process is a headache and less fruitful, said Benefit Kitchen CTO Dan Beeby.
"Access NYC is the city's pre-screener and it's a really cumbersome product," he explained. "It takes an hour to go through and asks for sensitive information like address and social security number."
Instead, Benefit Kitchen streamlines the process for low-income people to decide which applications to bother with -- in just five minutes.
"We see ourselves as a planning document, a roadmap. If the money's not there, they don't need to apply," Beeby said.
The partnership was born when MARP Executive Director Meredith Phillips Almeida met Benefit Kitchen CEO Melanie Lavelle at a tech speed-dating event hosted by the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS). Almeida saw a chance to collaborate and, according to Beeby, her proposal was exactly what the company had been waiting for.
"We'd been looking for an opportunity to focus on benefits that are really specific to geography," he said. "The fit was perfect and kind of immediate."
Within three days, the two organizations developed a proposal and applied for the SBS Neighborhood Challenge grant. From dozens of applicants, their idea was chosen as one of the five winning bids and awarded $100,000.
In the year since the screener has been active, MARP and Benefit Kitchen have focused on letting people know that the tool exists by visiting farmers markets, PTA meetings, food pantries, health fairs and block parties.
"We go where the people are," said Almeida. "We also mailed every household in Ingersoll, Whitman and Farragut houses about the screener. But I think those strategies are less effective than just seeing someone in person."
The benefits are obvious for residents, but Almeida says there's an upside for participating businesses as well. Aside from a marketing boost, the tool lets recipients of SNAP, WIC, Medicaid or Medicare know they can spend those benefits at a small business right on their block.
"There are businesses who are making an effort to serve everyone and that shows a commitment to the community," said Almeida. "We want to shine a light on that and hopefully inspire others to do the same."