When Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, Marjory Schiller – a 66-year-old bookkeeper who lives with her sister in a townhouse in Oceanside, New York, nowhere close to the ocean – recalls watching “whitecaps coming inside.” The storm caused more than $40,000 in damage to the condominium and devastated the family’s tight budget. “We took a big hit,” frets Marjory.
Fortunately, Marjory received an invitation last year to attend a nearby community event co-sponsored by AARP New York that helps people apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the government’s primary anti-hunger initiative. With guidance from a local outreach coordinator, Ms. Schiller filled out an application and now receives $189 in monthly food benefits, which she describes as a “blessing.” Before the application assistance events – part of AARP New York’s comprehensive campaign to combat older adult hunger – Ms. Schiller admits that she had “no clue” what SNAP was.
She is apparently not alone. Some two-thirds of those 60 and older adults eligible for SNAP are not enrolled in the program, and more than 600,000 older New Yorkers face the risk of food insecurity, which troubles Christine Deska, associate state director of AARP New York. The organization launched its anti-hunger initiative in 2010, convening the first statewide summit about food insecurity afflicting older New Yorkers. AARP Foundation underwrote the historic conference that brought together over 100 stakeholders in hunger, aging, government and philanthropy. “We realized there was a real need for our perspective,” says Christine.
The summit led to a white paper that called on Albany to enact several policy reforms. By November 2012, when AARP New York organized its second summit, three of its primary goals had already been accomplished: The state had changed the program’s name from “food stamps” – which Christine says had a “great stigma attached to it” – to SNAP; eliminated a finger-imaging requirement for applicants; and boosted outreach funding. By flexing its lobbying muscle, AARP “really made a big difference,” she says.
In addition to the summits and SNAP application assistance events, AARP New York, with support from AARP Foundation, convened a series of roundtables for local thought leaders from diverse communities that helped identify particular challenges for connecting older Latino, African American, and Asian American New Yorkers to SNAP benefits.
The roundtables are not just talk. Following a discussion in Glens Falls, AARP New York’s local partner, Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, identified several issues that deter clients from receiving SNAP assistance. “People are very reluctant to go to the Department of Social Services Office” to file applications, says Susan Lintner, the food bank’s director of agency and program services. Potential SNAP beneficiaries in rural Warren County, she points out, sometimes must travel 45 minutes each way to submit an application – too far if you have to decide between paying for fuel or food. After a roundtable illuminated the barrier, the food bank applied for a grant that ultimately paid the salary of a dedicated outreach coordinator who has helped nearly 300 people receive SNAP benefits since last April.
The roundtables also highlight innovative strategies that are currently reducing hunger. Gwen O'Shea, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, used a roundtable last year to raise awareness of her organization’s practice of leveraging AARP volunteers to make follow-up phone calls to seniors after application assistance events. “When you see someone who’s your contemporary, it automatically creates a level of trust,” Gwen says. “That resulted in a much higher response rate.”
The roundtables reinforced Gwen’s belief that battling stubborn misconceptions about food aid may be the most formidable barriers that anti-hunger advocates must overcome. As an example, she cites the lingering – but unfounded – concern of many seniors that accepting SNAP benefits will take away benefits from someone else. “That’s one of the biggest myths we find in the senior population.”
Another common obstacle is pride. Gwen observes that many of her hungry clients commonly think, “I can get by on my own.” Marjory Schiller, whose home was wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, says her sister struggled with receiving government help. But Marjory, now an advocate for SNAP, set her straight: “My sister was a little embarrassed, but I told her ‘We’ve paid our dues.’”