Nutrition assistance for older adults now a ‘SNAP’

By Carmen Hooker Odom

This summer, the state Division of Social Services will make an offer that shouldn’t be refused to more than 30,000 older North Carolinians.

That’s how many older adults receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and are potentially eligible for food stamps but are not taking advantage of the nutrition assistance offered by this program.

Starting in August, North Carolina will reach out to serve this group through a program called the Simplified Nutritional Assistance Program.

SNAP, a demonstration project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reinvents the way food assistance is provided to individuals aged 65 or older who receive SSI.

We estimate that 90 percent of the 30,000 are actually eligible. Another 10,000 older individuals who already get food stamps will have their benefits converted to SNAP, resulting in increased benefits for most of them. Of course, none will get less.

This program is particularly important because poor seniors are likely to be malnourished or have poor diets. It is estimated that as many as 60 percent of seniors living at home are malnourished. Of older North Carolinians receiving home-delivered meals, an estimated 90 percent are at moderate-to-high risk for malnutrition.

SNAP really is a snap. It is a simplified version of the food stamp program through which participants are certified for three years and get a standard monthly benefit of $38 or $62, based on their housing costs.

No trip to the Division of Social Services is necessary. A simple one-page application will be mailed to potentially eligible individuals.  Once they complete and return it to their local department of social services, benefits will begin. Recipients will be sent an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that can be used in the grocery store like a debit card.

Why don’t more low-income seniors use food stamps?

Often they just have the wrong idea about the program. One of the most common myths is that older persons only get $10 a month in benefits, when actually the average benefit is $44.

Seniors also are deterred by the hassle of applying for the program.

We hope that SNAP will make it easier.

What many don’t know is that qualifying for food stamps is only the beginning. Most food stamp recipients are automatically eligible to receive a check in February to help with winter heating costs.

They also can get a discount on the fee for getting a telephone in their name plus a monthly credit on their telephone bill through the Lifeline/LinkUp program.

If a local agency offers the commodity food program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they can also get foods like butter, cheese, canned fruits and vegetables, rice and flour.

I invite senior centers and other nonprofit agencies that serve older adults to partner with their local department of social services to help seniors understand how SNAP can help them put nutritious food on their table.

Carmen Hooker Odom is North Carolina secretary of health and human services.

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