Armed with scientific calculators, students at Carleton College were doing math – but not just any math. They were adding up calories and cents, selecting foods to buy from a small-scale model grocery store they’d built in the classroom. Their goal: to satisfy their dietary needs with limited money.
The students were playing the role of elderly poor in Northfield who make such calculations in real life every day, now more than ever as a result of the recession.
The exercise was part of research being done on the efficacy of the U.S. food stamp program organized by two students, Dia Davis and Nikki Reich, in a class on social welfare taught by social demography professor Peter Brandon.
Their ultimate finding: “We strongly disagree that food stamps serve the eligible elderly,” Davis said.
The students found that food stamps fail to reach four out of every five elderly people in Northfield who are eligible to receive them, mostly because of the lack of support in several key areas that keeps them from benefitting from the service.
Their classroom finding is in line with state and nationwide studies. A 2002 study by the Minnesota Department of Human Services showed only 58.7 percent of the eligible elderly made use of the state’s Food Support program, while a 2008 nationwide study showed only one in five eligible elderly used food stamps.
Formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or as Food Support in Minnesota, food stamps are a federal assistance program that aims to help families with low incomes and no incomes to combat “food insecurity.”
Davis and Reich found four main obstacles to the participation of eligible elderly in the Food Support program here in Northfield.
The first is a lack of awareness about eligibility. Sharon Vangsness, a social worker at the Community Action Center of Northfield, which runs a food shelf and other social services aiding the poor, agrees with that finding.
Many elderly poor people in Northfield “are simply not aware they might qualify,” Vangsness said. Food Support eligibility depends on households income and assets, with income at or below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
Even for those who find themselves eligible for food stamps, three other main problems often prevent them from receiving that support.
One is concern that a stigma attaches to those enrolled in the program.
Davis and Reich described an 82-year-old elderly Northfield woman who was at risk of hunger. She needed help, yet she found the idea of using food stamps so embarrassing that she waited for months before starting to use the CAC Food Shelf.
Even now, the woman only goes to the food shelf when her daughter is able to drive her there.
Which highlights another major problem blocking many of the eligible elderly poor from using food stamps – lack of transportation, either to a welfare office to apply for food stamps, or to stores and food shelves to use the stamps.
There is currently no regular, efficient transportation for the eligible elderly poor in Northfield to bridge that gap.
Bread and milk
Finally, Davis and Reich found, there is a widespread public perception that Food Support benefits are inadequate and thus not worth applying for.
Vangsness said that many of the elderly she assists have this impression. Many of them receive only $10 to $15 per month. That amounts to only about $0.50 a day, but she still encourages them to use the support because it could help pay for bread and milk. Every little bit helps.
According to Vangsness, with the recent economic downturn, “CAC has seen an increase in numbers of people using the food shelf. Increased numbers are applying for food stamps and other supplemental programs, such as Nutrition Assistance for Seniors (NAPS).”
Fliers are sometimes distributed to promote awareness of the program, but Vangsness downplays their effectiveness. “This is not an effective method,” she said. Advertising on TV and radio, as well as in apartment complexes for seniors would be better options.”
Some outreach is done by the Northfield Senior Center, but the Senior Center tends to cater to a more affluent group of seniors, most of whom are neither eligible for nor require assistance from Food Support.
“Everyone needs to keep trying to reach and encourage others who may qualify, to apply for services and benefits,” Vangsness said.
“We hope to present this same information to people in power, whether a welfare administrator, organizations that promote awareness, and others,” says Davis.
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