Isabel Rios-Smith knows what it’s like to rely on a food pantry. It kept her family from going hungry, but there was another option Rios-Smith didn't know about for a long time that could have provided more of the food her two young daughters needed — using federally funded SNAP benefits to buy food at the store.

“You needed to know someone who could kind of tell you that these kinds of things are out there,” said Rios-Smith, 28, a Boston resident, who has now relied on SNAP benefits for the past eight years.

In Massachusetts, an estimated one in five households with children don’t have enough food to eat — a number that’s nearly doubled since before the pandemic. It’s putting an unprecedented strain on food pantries. But advocates argue that fewer people would turn to the food pantry if SNAP were easier to access.

“About 40% of people don't even know about it. They don't know what SNAP is,” said Erin McAleer, executive director of Project Bread, “But 60% just assume it's not for them. They assume they're ineligible for it for various reasons. So lack of awareness about it is a huge obstacle.”

Research shows buying food with SNAP leads to health benefits and puts money back into the local economy. It’s also a more efficient way to feed people because, even at maximum capacity, food pantries can only serve a fraction of those who can be fed by SNAP.

A growing number of people in Massachusetts are accessing SNAP benefits. Between March and June of last year, households enrolled in SNAP grew by 19% over pre-pandemic rates, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees the SNAP program in Massachusetts. Yet, by the DTA’s own estimates, more than 700,000 low-income residents who receive health insurance through MassHealth are also likely eligible for SNAP.

“There is no combined application mechanism at this time, though the information you submit for MassHealth is the information you submit for SNAP, and that just makes no sense whatsoever,” said Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, executive director of Children’s Health Watch.

The state plans to pilot new data systems to create a common application and bridge what’s called the “SNAP Gap.” But receiving SNAP benefits doesn’t always mean leaving the food pantry behind.

Not long after Rios-Smith began full-time work as a medical assistant, her benefits were cut and she needed to turn back to the food pantry for support. She called the decrease in assistance “drastic.”

“It's not enough to feed you and your kids," Rios-Smith said. "When it's not enough for your own self, I would just make sure that my kids eat and they have enough. I would eat after them. You're barely holding on, so it gets draining.”

Now she works only two days a week, and she’s back on the maximum SNAP benefits.

It seems that if I do less, the government will help me more," Rios-Smith said. "If I do more, the government takes everything away from me before I can make it off the government. So then it, it makes you feel stuck."

It’s not an uncommon experience for SNAP recipients. Advocates like Ettinger de Cuba are calling for a more gradual reduction in benefits.

“We find the the folks with the most poor outcomes are those who have their benefits reduced because supposedly now you have more income to pay for your other needs. But in fact, you know, they are still struggling,” she said.

Despite her struggles, Rios-Smith has her eyes on the future. She dreams of becoming a nurse. And she’s grateful for SNAP, because she knows it’s hard to focus on that next step when you’re worried about that next meal.

“For me, it's always with the idea that this is temporary, because I'm working to get to where I need to be to be able to be self-sufficient and not rely on the government. So it's like a stepping stone,” Rios-Smith said.