Hunger campaign targets new poor and the elderly

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One poster in a new campaign to end hunger in Minnesota features a smiling Caucasian man dressed in t-shirt and sweatshirt. It reads, in part: “Drew Age: 42, Currently Unemployed. He uses SNAP. So can you.”

More than 500,000 Minnesotans receive benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, with disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Indians.

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But the need, buoyed in part by the economic recession, is significantly greater and broader. Only 65 percent of eligible Minnesotans and 41 percent of eligible seniors age 60 and older receive food assistance, according to the folks at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Going hungry is a regular occurrence for one in 10 Minnesotans. Count among them the elderly, the recently unemployed, families with children and the working poor.

The problem is not that there isn’t enough financial help available or a lack of food, but that a sizeable number of people plain aren’t signing up for the Food Support benefits they are eligible for and that would help them put food on the table.

To help remedy that, this month Hunger-Free Minnesota, General Mills, the state Department of Human Services and Hunger Solutions Minnesota will launch a public information and marketing campaign aimed at informing Minnesotans of all races and ethnicities just who is eligible to apply for supplemental food assistance.

Social stigmas

The campaign, translated into four languages, also hopes to help overcome social stigmas. Food Support benefits are federal, not state, dollars.

A $200,000 contribution from the General Mills Foundation will fund the three-year effort as well as leverage an additional almost $200,000 in SNAP outreach reimbursement dollars from the United States Department of Agriculture. (Only some of that federal money will be used in this outreach campaign.)

Is such a campaign necessary? Proponents argue there are barriers to applying for and receiving government assistance.

The campaign is trying to reframe the problem and the solution, says R. Newell Searle, a vice president with Second Harvest Heartland, the largest hunger relief organization in the Upper Midwest.

“The whole idea of being self sufficient, standing on your own feet, is deeply engrained in the culture. We find it very difficult to ask for help,”says Searle in speculating why some people don’t apply for Food Support to receive and EBT card they can use to help pay for groceries.

Embarrassment can be a deterrent too, as I learned recently from a woman I hope to write more about soon. Qualifying as working poor, she and her husband didn’t reapply for $100 in monthly SNAP food assistance because of disparaging comments made about her using her EBT card at the grocery store.

Targets 90,000 people

The new campaign targets 90,000 people, but particularly the recently unemployed and senior citizens. It publicizes eligibility criteria and lists a toll-free telephone number and website for further information. Some of the new money funds a food helpline.

Poor, elderly Minnesotans often hang back from signing up as well because of the “welfare” stigma of the program, misinformation and the fear they are taking food from families with children, says Hunger Solutions Minnesota spokeswoman Jill Hiebert. Seniors need to know they can continue to own and live in their own homes and still receive Food Support.

Ads and posters will be seen across the state at 3,000 locations, including food shelves and county offices, on the sides of buses and in newspapers and heard on radio, says Colleen Moriarity, who heads up Hunger Solutions Minnesota, the organization that oversees the campaign. Messages will go out in Somali, Spanish, Russian and English.

The campaign affords the opportunity to bring together everyone working on food support and nutrition issues, including members of the new Minnesota Nutritious Food Coalition, organized by the Dayton administration, says Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of the state Human Services Department.

Sullivan Sutton stresses both health and economic benefits of putting enough food on the tables of Minnesotans. After all, EBT funds are spent at the grocery store.

Images courtesy Hunger Solutions MN