Federal program aims to end elder hunger


By Linda F. Fitzgerald

The growing problem of elder hunger in the United States, including right here in Massachusetts, is disgraceful. And, it can be solved.

Older residents, and families, still struggle to put food on the table, due in part to the tough economy, but also because of the high cost of living in the commonwealth.

According to Project Bread — the state’s leading anti-hunger organization — participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), has increased over the past five years. However, many Bay State residents are going without the benefits they are entitled to because they do not know how to apply — or, perhaps more significantly, they do not know that they are eligible.

Keep in mind: We are not talking about just a few people missing out on important assistance that can help keep them healthy. In Massachusetts, 63 percent of residents age 60 and older who are eligible for SNAP have not signed up. That’s nearly 119,000 seniors who risk going hungry every day unnecessarily. This must change.

It is true: Older persons may often be more reluctant to ask for help. This leaves them with tough choices — like having to decide whether to buy food or medication. Bottom line: When seniors go hungry, they are more likely to be hospitalized and experience chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

A federal program, administered at the state level, SNAP helps families and seniors buy the nutritious food they need for good health. It is the cornerstone of the nation’s nutrition safety net, and helps prevent and alleviate food insecurity and hunger. Here in the commonwealth, it works in tandem with the Elder Nutrition Program, which provides home-delivered meals to older persons as well as communal meals at senior centers and other central locations. The program came under attack by Gov. Deval Patrick in his fiscal year 2013 state budget proposal.

Laurel Rancitelli, director of the Pine Point Senior Center in Springfield, recently told the AARP Bulletin that her center serves lunch five days a week. A voluntary donation of $1.75 is requested. She explained that some seniors come because of financial reasons, but others come to socialize or because physical limitations make meal preparation difficult.

Patricia Baker, an analyst for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute added, “Meals are a huge part of someone’s day.”

SNAP may be used to purchase food at grocery stores, convenience stores, some farmers’ markets and co-op food programs. At the checkout counter, a SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card, is used to pay for food.

Today, people of all ages use SNAP. Eligibility is based on household size, income and certain expenses, such as out-of-pocket health care costs for seniors. Those with regular income from Social Security or a pension may still receive SNAP benefits, which average about $130 a month — and can make a real difference.

Let me be clear: SNAP is a nutrition program. It is not a welfare cash assistance program. A person does not have to be receiving Welfare to get SNAP; these are two separate programs.

Most older Massachusetts residents — those aged 60 and over — may complete a SNAP application interview by phone. If your monthly out-of-pocket medical expenses are higher than $35 per month, you can receive a medical deduction ($90 or higher).

For most, assets such as savings and investments will not be counted. Under no circumstances will the house you are living in or your IRA be included as an asset.

You do not have to comply with work requirements.

You can designate someone you trust to be an Authorized Representative, which enables them to use your SNAP card to purchase food for you.

If your household consists of only an older or disabled person with a stable income (Social Security, for example), you may be SNAP “certified” for two years, meaning you will not need to update your information until 24 months after you apply.

SNAP can be a vital resource for older residents, especially those who are living on a fixed income. Whether you own your own home, live in elderly housing, or have moved in with family, you may qualify for benefits. I implore you to take a moment, right now, to find out if you — or a loved one — can tap into SNAP. Call the Project Bread FoodSource Hotline at 800-645-8333 or check your eligibility online at www.gettingsnap.org.

Today, let’s take another step towards ending elder hunger in Massachusetts.

Linda F. Fitzgerald is the volunteer state president of AARP Massachusetts, which represents more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in the Bay State. Connect with AARP Massachusetts online at www.aarp.org/ma, www.facebook.com/AARPMA and www.twitter.com/AARPMA.