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Older Californians Missing Opportunity for Food Assistance

Only 10 percent of eligible residents over 60 apply

Bob Hyman, a retired salesman with health problems, stocks up at the weekly food pantry at his subsidized senior housing facility. From food provided by the San Francisco Food Bank, he selects carrots, cabbage, potatoes, celery, onions, apples, pears, canned beans, bread and rice.

"It's a good program, and it helps," he said. "It's free. I'm thankful." Chicken, which was formerly offered, hasn't been available for months. He buys eggs occasionally at a nearby grocery store, "but it's expensive."

Hyman, 79, lives on a monthly income after rent of less than $700 from Social Security and a pension. He takes public transportation, eats $2 lunches at another senior housing facility and cooks at home. He dismissed any need for government food assistance. "I'm thrifty and smart about food," he said.

Hyman is one of the estimated 90 percent of Californians over 60 who are eligible for the state's CalFresh food assistance program but don't participate.

In the past two years, demand for food assistance in California has surged — up 44 percent in the past two years in Los Angeles County alone. Yet California has the second-lowest participation rate in government food assistance programs, after Wyoming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about half of all eligible Californians receive food assistance, but only 10 percent of the roughly 360,000 eligible people over 60 participate. Nationally, the participation rate is 34 percent. By streamlining the process and getting the word out, advocates hope to make it easier for older Californians to apply for benefits.

"People in California need to know about this program," said Christina Clem, AARP California associate state director for communications. "The money is there but the numbers of eligible Californians are not applying for the service in the numbers we have expected, given these hard economic times."

USDA spokesman Regan Hopper said misinformation is a major problem. "Our greatest barrier to [food assistance] participation among seniors is that many don't know they are eligible."

Older people and people with disabilities may be eligible even if their income is higher than the threshold of $1,174 per month for one person, because some medical and housing costs can be deducted from income, according to the California Association of Food Banks. Those over 60 are also allowed assets of $3,000 — compared with $2,000 for those under 60 — not including a house and car.

But a lengthy state application for CalFresh, requiring fingerprinting, documentation, several return visits and an interview, can discourage clients.

Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks, said fingerprinting, introduced to prevent fraud, is unnecessary and creates a stigma.

"California is one of only four states in the USA to still require this, despite advances in technology," she said.

If California eliminated its fingerprinting requirement, the USDA has estimated that the number of participants in CalFresh would increase 7 percent.

AARP California is working on legislative and regulatory changes to remove both the asset test and the fingerprinting requirement, said Michael Richard, assistant state director for advocacy.

Low enrollment is also attributed to confusion resulting from a 1970s-era state regulation that prohibits anyone who receives federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits from receiving food assistance. Instead, SSI recipients receive a food subsidy as part of their income benefit.

Uncertain about what SSI means, many retirees receiving Social Security think they're not eligible for food assistance.

"Social Security … is not the same as Supplemental Security Income. Having Social Security … doesn't exclude you," said George Manalo-LeClair, senior director of legislation for California Food Policy Advocates.

Joan Aragone is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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