Ruth Howell has worked hard all her life. But when she was laid off from her office job in 2008, her Social Security check didn't cover expenses, especially after her unemployment ran out. After taxes, insurance and the mortgage payment on her house in Butler, she was eating two meals a day — sometimes one.
For a long time, it didn't occur to her that she could get help. "A person does have pride," said Howell, who is in her early 70s. "And I didn't know where to go."
But a TV news report on the Hunger Task Force's Stockbox program for southeastern Wisconsin was her first step toward getting help. She signed up for the monthly delivery of nonperishable food. An official with Hunger Task Force, Wisconsin's leading anti-hunger organization, told her she was also eligible for home heating assistance and for the FoodShare Wisconsin program.
FoodShare is Wisconsin's term for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
But only about one in eight older Wisconsinites who are eligible for food assistance actually receives it — a situation the state's food banks and AARP want to change.
"Hunger is very much an issue for our members," said Jim Flaherty, communications director for AARP Wisconsin. AARP Wisconsin has worked with the Hunger Task Force to spread its message and help find people who need assistance.
Howell's food situation has stabilized, and she's always been a careful shopper and good cook. "I'm a firm believer in making things from scratch," she said. At Christmastime, she was able to buy flour and sugar to make cookies for her family.
Hunger problems tend to get worse with age, said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force. Typically, older people will try every other option than government assistance — meals at senior centers, eating with friends. "If you're skipping meals, you're probably eligible" for FoodShare, she said. A few hundred dollars a month from FoodShare to pay for food can make the difference so people have enough money to pay their rent or mortgage.
The stamps or coupons of past years have been replaced by a debit card that users swipe at the grocery store. The entire FoodShare application process can be done online or over the phone at 1-800-362-3002. The screening process may also allow applicants to find out whether they are eligible for help with other needs such as medical expenses and home heating expenses.
"We explain that you never have to go to the agency, and we see a lot of wide eyes and some hugs," said Maureen Fitzgerald, of the Hunger Task Force. "It's empowering for people to do it themselves and manage it themselves. "More and more older Americans are using computers, and help is available for those who need it. Jennifer Baier, AARP Wisconsin senior program specialist, said that 43 percent of the state's members are online, and that number is expected to grow.
Applying "feels a little like doing your income taxes," said Tussler, who helped her stepmother get into the program recently. "You're going to collect a pile of paper to prove your eligibility" for FoodShare.
The average household benefit for older residents is $177 a month.
FoodShare recipients may own a house and a car, and generally may have no more than $2,000 in liquid assets. Many people wait until they have nothing before they apply, but Tussler urges everyone to "save the $2,000 for when the car breaks down." Individuals with incomes of less than $1,806 or couples less than $2,430 a month are automatically eligible. People with higher incomes are often eligible depending on their expenses.
The Hunger Task Force operates two self-serve centers in Milwaukee where people can use computers to apply for state aid. Staffers are on hand to help, if necessary.
"So much help is available," Fitzgerald said.
People on FoodShare are "not taking it away from anyone else," she said. "It saddens me that it's underused in the senior population."
David Lewellen is a freelance writer and editor in Glendale, Wis.