Nashville resident Vernell McHenry's only income is a $674 monthly disability payment. To help make ends meet, she enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps.
While others may consider the $40 in food assistance she receives each month a paltry amount, McHenry, 55, sees it differently. "Every little bit these days helps."
See also: SNAP primer: What are the benefits?
McHenry's situation is all too common among older Tennesseans. More than 90,000 of the state's 60-plus population who are eligible for SNAP haven't applied for it, the federal government reports.
AARP Tennessee wants to change those statistics and has organized events to encourage more older people to enroll in SNAP, draw public awareness to hunger among the state's senior population and collect nonperishable goods for food banks.
AARP Tennessee will organize a Day of Service on Friday, Sept. 9, as part of a series of events throughout the month that will focus on hunger.
- AARP volunteers in the Memphis area will conduct a food drive to help the Mid-South Food Bank. Its operations were stretched thin by people who needed emergency food assistance after last spring's floods. The agency provides food to soup kitchens and food pantries in 12 rural Tennessee counties.
- AARP volunteers will help the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee sort donations at the agency's warehouse in Gray. Some will also help distribute supplies to food pantries in eight counties.
- In Nashville, AARP members will be encouraged to attend the weekly Friday luncheon at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and then participate in a "sorting party" to organize donated items. The food bank distributes food to more than 400 nonprofits in 46 counties.
Information about each event, including locations and times, is at aarp.org/tn or available by calling 1-866-295-7274 toll-free.
At each event and through other venues, AARP Tennessee will also distribute material describing who is eligible to receive SNAP benefits and how to apply for them.
To check your eligibility for assistance, use the Benefits QuickLink tool on aarp.org.
Volunteers who pitch in will help people like Charles Houston, a 65-year-old Nashville resident.
Houston usually has two meals a day: a bowl of cereal and a banana for breakfast and some bacon and toast for dinner. Occasionally he splurges and buys ingredients for a casserole. Houston is thankful he can sometimes supplement his meals with fruit and vegetables from a community garden where he volunteers.
Houston's only income is $773 a month from Social Security retirement and disability insurance, so he qualified for SNAP and receives $16 a month in benefits. Even so, Houston is often hungry.
Marcia Wells, vice president of communications and development at the Mid-South Food Bank, said hunger among older people often involves lack of access to healthy food but ready access to empty calories.
"They may live in a neighborhood where there is a convenience store, but there is nothing healthy there," she said. "And then in rural areas, which make up a lot of Tennessee, the mom-and-pop grocery stores are gone, the farmers with the fruit and vegetable stands are gone. So you have seniors who can't get to the big giant Walmart, which is where everyone else is getting healthy food."
Wells said that for many older people facing food insecurity, something as simple as frozen chicken can bring them to tears.
"At the mobile pantry not too long ago, this lady came in with her daughter, and she went to crying because she said she had not had any meat in a month."
Wells said many older people face a hard choice similar to a client who came to the middle pantry recently. Within three months of being laid off, he didn't have enough money to buy his wife's medicine and food for his family.
"That is the choice for many seniors," Wells said. "Do they pay for the medicines they need or buy food?"
That kind of choice can have a serious ripple effect, said Rebecca Kelly, AARP Tennessee state director. "People who don't have enough to eat or can't get enough nutritious food often develop health problems that send them to an emergency room or nursing home. Both are far more expensive for society than older people remaining in their own homes."
To organize a food drive in your community, visit createthegood.org/howto.
Hollie Deese is a freelance writer based in Gallatin, Tenn.
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