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Low-income, Older Americans Resist Food Assistance

Shame, lack of information hinder sign-ups

Maggie Chacon, right, of End Hunger CT!, helps Norma Velasquez apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Maggie Chacon, right, of End Hunger CT!, helps Norma Velasquez apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. AARP works with End Hunger CT! and other groups on antihunger programs. — Christopher Capozziello/AEVUM

Kira Watson can recite the reasons low-income older people don't apply for food assistance.

See also: Hunger in America.

The big one is "I don't want to be on welfare," said Watson, an outreach worker for End Hunger CT!, a nonprofit antihunger advocacy group. "I also find 'I don't need that; someone else might need it more.' "

SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an updated name for the program known for decades as food stamps — is a lifeline for many.

About 12 percent of Connecticut's SNAP enrollees are 60 and older. But barely a third of the people 60 and older who are eligible for SNAP get it (PDF), according to Mathematica Policy Research.

Typical of those too embarrassed to admit they receive assistance is an 89-year-old woman living in a subsidized apartment in Norwich.

She'll willingly talk about enrolling in SNAP to help buy groceries, but she asks that her name be omitted because she doesn't want anyone — including her family — to know she's getting help.

"It will take the edge off the bills," she said, adding she'd never heard of SNAP until outreach workers came to her building to talk about it.

"I don't like the idea that I have to be on it. I've always paid my own way. I feel like I should be able to do it myself."

To address hunger among the state's older residents, AARP Connecticut worked late last year with four groups — End Hunger CT!, the Hispanic Health Council, Foodshare and the Connecticut Association for Human Services — on a four-week pilot project.

AARP's role was to spread the word that food aid is available for many people in need. AARP sent out mailings and ran ads in community newspapers to publicize the groups' toll-free telephone line, 1-866-974-SNAP (7627). AARP Connecticut also provided a link on its website to a site with benefit information.

In addition, the groups trained volunteers to staff the phone line. Previously callers could only leave messages, something older people are often reluctant to do, said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger CT!. Calls to the SNAP phone line spiked. Instead of 200 or so calls a month, there were 1,340.

During the last two months of 2010, there was an uptick in SNAP enrollment among those 50 and older, according to the Connecticut Department of Social Services.

"Our role last year and this is to get the person closer to the benefit," said Erica Michalowski, AARP Connecticut's associate state director for community outreach, "by providing them a vehicle to actually apply."

Equally important has been the effort to dispel misconceptions. Outreach workers are careful to state that people aren't required to repay SNAP benefits; that they will not lose their homes; and that signing up isn't too complicated. Benefits range from $16 to $200 a month for individuals.

Today, food assistance benefits are loaded on a plastic card that looks like a debit card; paper food stamps, which many found to be a source of humiliation at the grocery, no longer exist.

And, since last year, a SNAP application (PDF) can be downloaded, requested by phone and returned by mail. The required follow-up interview can be by phone or in person. Previously, people who applied for SNAP had to visit a government office. End Hunger CT! also has a confidential online SNAP prescreening tool that takes about 10 minutes for those who aren't sure if they qualify.

The goal this year is to continue the collaboration.

"No one should have to choose between food and other necessities, like medicine," Michalowski said. "But millions of seniors have to make this devastating choice every day. SNAP can mean the difference between putting food on the table or going hungry."

To donate or to find out how you can get involved, visit the Drive to End Hunger website.

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a writer living in Branford, Conn.

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