Civic News

Startup, neighborhood group team up to fight poverty in Brooklyn

Thanks to a city grant, Benefit Kitchen is working with the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to connect low-income citizens with underutilized aid programs.

Left to right: Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership's Meredith Phillips Almeida with Benefit Kitchen cofounders Melanie Lovelle and Dan Beeby. (Courtesy photo)

It’s a different kind of scaling when an app that works on a national level zooms in to a neighborhood focus, but that’s what will be going on for BigApps 2015 winner Benefit Kitchen.

The app asks users for their income data and then lays out what public benefits they’re eligible for, such as food stamps, Medicaid and 16 more programs. Now, thanks to a grant from the city’s Department of Small Business Services, Benefit Kitchen will takes its service local, partnering with the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to tailor the offerings on the app to include assistance from organizations and business for people in the neighborhood.

“We’re a kind of GPS for low-wage workers,” explained Benefit Kitchen cofounder Melanie Lavelle by phone yesterday. “These are benefits we don’t use as a country efficiently — $80 billion in these benefits are left on the table annually. There’s a lot people don’t know and that leaves them in a powerless place, and with this we try to help them with what’s going on.”

Lavelle said that the local version of the app will include benefits from local nonprofits and businesses that offer special rates for people in need of help. That would mean things like free eye exams for low-income people from a neighborhood optometrist or free bike repair for kids from a local bicycle store.

Lavelle’s app was one of the five winners from 12 startups who pitched at the Department of Small Business Service’s Neighborhood Challenge pitch night at Grand Central Tech recently. The idea of the neighborhood challenge is to match up startups with neighborhood agencies, each of which will receive a $100,000 grant for the work. Other organization/startup pairings include the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and DUMBO Improvement District with visitor engagement technology and the Rockaway Business Alliance with a delivery service to people on the beach.

Lavelle said the focus on the local community could ultimately help Benefit Kitchen in national expansion (it’s currently active in California, New Jersey, Texas and New York) because she’ll be building essentially a white label version of the product that could be replicated.

“The people we’re serving are working they’re just not making enough to make ends meet,” she said. “Our goal is to keep them in those jobs so they can get ahead. If they keep cycling in and out of those jobs they’re not going to get anywhere. Ultimately we’d like them not to need any of these but while they do we want them to be accessible.”

Series: Brooklyn

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