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An Ex-Trucker, a Wrong Number, and a Lucky Break

Thanks to a misdial, Tom McSpedden got more benefits — and enough to eat.

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Tom McSpedden, 70, lives in a rented room in Citrus Heights, California. And though long-time friendships keep him from becoming isolated, his poor health and financial difficulties make it tough for him to do much.

It’s a big change from the life Tom lived for three decades as a truck driver. “I loved it. I felt like I was getting paid to see the country,” he says. When he got tired of being on the road for long stretches, he took local driving jobs to pay the bills until a series of heart attacks stopped him in his tracks.

One of those heart attacks landed him in the hospital for several days. And it was then, Tom says, that he made the catastrophic mistake that changed the course of his life. 

“When I got out of the hospital, they said I owed them a million-something dollars,” he explains. “But I didn’t ask what my options were. I gave them everything I’d saved because I thought I had to.”

So, in 2006, Tom became completely dependent on Social Security disability benefits, having developed COPD in addition to heart problems. “It’s not particularly livable,” he says, “but my parents taught us that you pay your bills and live within your means, so that’s what I did.”

He also applied for Medicaid and was automatically enrolled in CalFresh, California’s name for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps). At first, he was getting $67 a month in benefits. That amount increased over time, in part due to a CalFresh program that allows $60 a month in purchases from local farmers’ markets, but it wasn’t nearly enough — especially for someone who, like Tom, has type 2 diabetes. 

It’s hard to overstate the importance of nutritious foods for people trying to manage diabetes. Unprocessed foods — like fresh vegetables and high-fiber whole grains — help to keep blood sugar levels in check, while highly refined foods — think white bread, sodas, and sugary breakfast cereals — can cause blood sugar levels to spike dangerously high. 

But fresh, unprocessed foods cost a lot more than the highly processed kind. “Eating healthy is expensive,” Tom says. “If you’re living off benefits, you have to throw diabetes out the window.”

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In the early days of relying on SNAP benefits, Tom was often hungry because he couldn’t afford enough to eat. He’d have a piece of fruit in the morning and one meal in the afternoon, “usually a bologna and cheese sandwich, or hot dogs,” he says. But when the pandemic hit, the federal government authorized an emergency increase in benefits for SNAP/CalFresh recipients. “They told me I was going to get an additional $211 a month,” Tom remembers. “I finally had enough money to eat.”

With breathing room in his budget, he could afford to make healthier choices, but it was short-lived. In 2023, emergency allotments abruptly ended, and Tom was back to square one.” Still, he felt he had it easier than some. “I knew I’d get by somehow; I always do. But it’s the single mother with three kids I worry about. How does she feed them without that extra money?”

During earlier tight times, Tom had turned to Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services (SFBFS) to supplement his meals, so when the emergency allotments ended, he called them for help. In what would turn out to be a serendipitous slip, he chose the wrong menu option and was connected with Erika Murdoch, a CalFresh specialist.  

Erika, who has worked with SFBFS (an AARP Foundation grantee) for 13 years, says many CalFresh recipients don’t realize there are other costs they can report — such as housing, utilities, child care, and certain medical expenses — that qualify them for a higher benefit. She helped Tom find unreported expenses, adding $60 a month to his benefits.

Tom and Erika spoke many times throughout the process, and they still stay in touch. Along with the extra money, the experience showed him the importance of asking questions. “People think that the initial amount is all you get. But in most cases, it’s not,” says Tom. “If you can find the right person to help you, someone who knows the system, you might be able to get more. Erika found a way to help me survive.”

Learn more about AARP Foundation’s work to help older adults apply for SNAP benefits.

Read more stories about how our programs have helped people find hope, and about the volunteers who give so much of themselves to help others.


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