AARP encouraging seniors to sign up for food stamps

Caroline May | Reporter

The Pennsylvania chapter of the AARP is encouraging area seniors to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, or food stamps.

According to the AARP Bulletin, several dozen volunteers with AARP Pennsylvania are encouraging potentially eligible seniors to enroll in the nutrition assistance program by handing out postcards with information about how to enroll.

Bill Donnelly, 79, of Clairton is one such volunteer.

“We are working on trying to get people enrolled in the SNAP program,” the Bulletin quotes Donnelly’s pitch to area seniors.

Donnelly explains, however, that his peers are at times wary of signing up for assistance.

“People have their pride,” he told The AARP Bulletin. “But if we get 1 out of 10 or even 1 out of 100 people, it’s worth it.”

Bill Johnson-Walsh, AARP’s state director in Pennsylvania, told The Tribune-Democrat, of Johnstown, Pa., that the campaign has initially focused on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but will move across the state by 2014.

“It’s an issue in the rural areas. It’s an issue across the board,” he told The Tribune.

The Bulletin reports that AARP Pennsylvania estimates that 347,000 people 50 years old and over are “food insecure.”

“People are falling through the cracks,” Johnston-Walsh explained to The Bulletin.

“People say, ‘Oh, they can get Meals on Wheels or get food at the senior center.’ But there are transportation issues. Some Meals on Wheels have waiting lists,” he added.

According to an AARP Bulletin report in June, AARP Connecticut and End Hunger Connecticut have joined forces to encourage SNAP enrollment among seniors with town hall meetings, mailers and leaflets at libraries and doctors’ offices. The project has been funded by $200,000 from the AARP Foundation, AARP’s affiliated charity.

In 2011, the AARP Foundation launched a pilot initiative to assist seniors with SNAP enrollment in Georgia, where the Athens Banner-Herald reported in 2012 that the foundation found nearly two-thirds of eligible seniors were not enrolled.

In eight months, AARP Foundation staff and volunteers were able to assist over 1,100 older Georgians fill out SNAP applications, according to the Banner-Herald’s report.

AARP New York has also worked with area groups since 2010 to increase SNAP enrollment among the senior population in their state, according to an AARP Bulletin article from July 2012.

The effort has included pushing for easier, less stigmatized access on a state level, as well as mailing information to potentially eligible people, assisting with enrollment at senior centers and hosting educational events.

Christine Deska, New York AARP’s anti-hunger program coordinator, explained to The Bulletin that getting seniors to sign up can be difficult, as can the application process, due to the amount of paperwork.

“This is a population that will say ‘How can I help you?’ instead of ‘I need some help,'” Deska told the Bulletin. “If you’re eligible, you’re entitled. These are designated dollars for you if you fall on hard times.”

In November 2012, the AARP Foundation announced it would be expanding Georgia’s pilot program to four additional states.

SNAP participation has reached record highs in recent months. According to the most recent data from the Agriculture Department, the number of people enrolled in SNAP has averaged about 47.6 million for fiscal year 2013, compared to 28.2 million in 2008.

Karen Patyk, AARP’s Hunger Impact Area program manager, explained to The Daily Caller that AARP’s SNAP outreach initiatives are tied to AARP’s Drive to End Hunger.

“Participation in the SNAP program is for the general [eligible] population high currently, about 75 percent. Senior participation, those 60 and older, seniors defined by USDA guidelines, only one out of every three [eligible] seniors receives the SNAP benefits to which they are entitled,” Patyk said.

According to Patyk, older adults have the lowest participation rate in the program and that rate has been relatively stagnant.

Patyk explained that in the last three years, AARP began working for more outreach and education about SNAP. And in the last two years, AARP has been working to assist seniors with the application process.

“Outreach and education is only one half the work we have to play,” she said, adding that SNAP applications are long and can be difficult for seniors, especially if they are computer-based.

She noted that SNAP outreach and assistance is not available in every state, but AARP offers technical assistance to all the state offices that want to do SNAP outreach and assistance, noting that AARP has also provided small grants to that end in the past.

The AARP Foundation is also taking on 13 government volunteers through the Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps to place across the country to “help close the gap on SNAP participation via capacity building projects,” Patyk said.

In two years, AARP has helped seniors submit nearly 30,000 SNAP applications, according to Patyk.

This story has been updated with Patyk’s comments.

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