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You May Qualify for Food Stamps

As many as a million New York seniors are eligible, but only half are enrolled

Food Stamps are accepted at 50 farmers markets in New York City like this one in Tucker Square near Lincoln Center

Photo by Katja Heinemann/Novus Select

Only about half of the older New Yorkers eligible to receive food stamps are enrolled in the program.

Two years ago, a social worker encouraged Louiza Crosby to apply for food stamps. "I had never applied before because I didn't think I qualified," said Crosby, 75, of the Bronx. "I have a lot of pride, and I didn't want to go on them."

As it turned out, Crosby was eligible to receive $200 a month in food stamps.

"There have been days when I didn't know what I'd do without them," said the retired housekeeper whose only income is from Social Security. "Now, I'm able to get fresh vegetables, meat and liver, which helps with my blood count."

As many as a million older New Yorkers may be eligible to receive food stamps, said Linda Bopp, executive director of Hunger Solutions New York, but only about half are enrolled in the program.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — called food stamps in New York — is a federal program administered by states that helps low-income people buy groceries.

"Malnutrition has been found to affect one in four older Americans living at home and is a factor in half of all hospital admissions and readmissions of older people," Bopp said. "Good health depends on good nutrition. Seniors, in particular, need a healthy diet to prevent sickness, manage chronic diseases, or heal after an injury."

Nutrition assistance programs help older adults remain healthy and living in their own homes, avoiding costly institutional care.

But persuading older adults to sign up for food stamps isn't easy, said Christine Deska, who coordinates the anti-hunger program for AARP New York.

"This is a population that will say 'How can I help you?' instead of 'I need some help,' " she said. "If you're eligible, you're entitled. These are designated dollars for you if you fall on hard times."

The application process can also get in the way, Deska said, because many older people are daunted by the paperwork and documents required. In May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for the end to a fingerprinting requirement in New York City that some people thought discouraged fraud but that others said was a barrier for people who had difficulty getting to an agency office to be fingerprinted, especially frail older people.

Deska said some people don't realize that food stamps are no longer actual stamps.

"It's a debit card, easy to use and looks like a credit card," she said. "That goes a long way for a senior who thinks they have to take out stamps at the register and feels embarrassed."

She said many people also don't realize they're eligible and that the income threshold may be higher than they thought. For instance, a two-person household with an elderly or disabled person and an annual income of $29,424 qualifies. Still others may not know that for people 60 and older, medical expenses in excess of $35 a month are deductible from income for establishing food stamp eligibility.

"Many seniors think they'll go through the process and only get [the] minimum amount of $16 a month," Deska said. "In fact, households with a person 60 or older get an average amount of $144 a month."

Since 2010, AARP New York has been part of a coalition of more than 100 groups working to boost food stamp enrollment. For starters, AARP wants the state to change the name of the program from the New York State Food Stamp Program to its federal name, SNAP.

AARP New York is also working to streamline the application process. For instance, most recipients currently need to be recertified yearly; AARP New York would like to make that once every two years.

To get the word out, AARP New York staff and volunteers have helped with enrollment at New York City senior centers; mailed information to people who may be eligible; and will host educational events in various New York City neighborhoods this fall.

Winnie Yu is a writer living in Voorheesville, N.Y