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Stretching Grocery Budgets for Seniors

AARP helps older people get food aid

Laureen and Charles Braxton, FNS educates older people about getting financial help for groceries

AARP is helping people like Laureen and Charles Braxton apply for financial help for groceries. Medical expenses for the uninsured Raleigh couple depleted their resources. — Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Laureen and Charles Braxton never anticipated that paying bills would be so hard at this point in their lives. The Raleigh couple lived comfortably — but not extravagantly — as they raised three sons.

Then, Charles, 71, had two heart attacks about 15 years ago. He didn't have health insurance.

"That wiped us out," said Laureen, 66. "I didn't realize it was going to be like this."

See also: Hungry in America: What we can do.

The Braxtons are just the kind of folks AARP North Carolina is trying to reach through a campaign to educate older people about a program that provides financial aid so low-income people can buy food.

Called the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) program, it's part of the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an updated model of the former food stamps program.

Like the Braxtons, 61 percent of North Carolinians older than 60 whose incomes are low enough to make them eligible for the program have not signed up, according to 2009 federal data.

Outreach workers say older residents are a particularly challenging group to enroll.

Reasons include a 16-page application that can be intimidating. Also, some older adults say others — children or the homeless, for instance — are more needy. And some don't know that application procedures recently changed, expanding eligibility and allowing people to apply by phone instead of in person.

"Many of our seniors have to make the tough choices between paying their rent or buying food, or paying for their medicine or buying food," said Allison Wills, FNS outreach coordinator for the Food Bank of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.

She also said pride is sometimes another deterrent.

Jason Turnbull, the public programs field coordinator at MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, said he tells clients that they have worked and paid their taxes for years; there is nothing wrong with accepting this benefit.

"That is what this program was designed to do: to help alleviate food insecurity and help people who are struggling financially."

AARP North Carolina has hosted telephone town hall meetings for residents of the Charlotte area and northeastern North Carolina to describe FNS benefits and how to enroll. Thousands of people stayed on the phone for the hour-long discussion, said Suzanne LaFollette-Black, AARP North Carolina associate state director for outreach.

Volunteers have distributed flyers and spoken at churches to help spread the word about the food assistance program.

Help with applications

On Nov. 14, AARP North Carolina will host another telephone town hall meeting for residents in the north-central part of the state.

On Nov. 17, AARP staff and volunteers will help enrollees of the Winston-Salem Urban League's employment training program fill out FNS benefits applications.

Recently, the Braxtons picked up food at the Catholic Parish Outreach food pantry to stretch their grocery budget.

Everything costs more these days, Charles said. "It's hard to maintain a budget," Laureen added.

After Charles was hospitalized a few times last summer because of a reaction to his medicine, the Braxtons decided to request help.

They filled out part of their FNS application but said they need help to finish it.

"This will help us out a lot," Laureen said of the FNS benefit. "It doesn't have to be a whole lot, just enough to get us through."

Visit feedingamerica.org to donate nonperishable food or find a food bank near you. To volunteer at a Feeding America food bank, visit createthegood.org.

Also of interest: 'I went to bed hungry.' >>

Natalie Gott is a writer based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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