The U.S. food-stamp program, created five decades ago to stave off hunger among impoverished families, is undergoing a remarkable resurgence among a generation of older Minnesotans.
Squeezed by rising living costs and depleted retirement funds, people who are 65 and older now represent the fastest-growing segment of food stamp recipients in Minnesota. Their numbers have nearly doubled since the Great Recession ended in 2009, forcing the state to explore new ways to reach an often isolated population of seniors.
The surge in enrollment among older people also reflects a major shift in attitudes toward the federal benefit, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Once derided as “welfare,” food stamps no longer carry the same stigma, particularly among the growing numbers of baby boomers entering retirement. The benefit has become so popular that, in some Twin Cities senior complexes, it is almost as ubiquitous as Social Security and Medicare benefits, social workers say.
A decade ago, only one-third of Minnesota seniors who qualified for food stamps actually received the benefit — the lowest participation rate of any age group. But years of outreach in low-income senior housing projects and statewide reforms that streamlined the application process have dramatically increased enrollment. Applicants can now sign up online and be interviewed by phone. Within days, they can receive an electronic benefits card in the mail that can be swiped to buy groceries.
Last year, a record 58 percent of eligible seniors in Minnesota were enrolled in the program — more than 50,000 people — state figures show.
“Times have changed, and we have gotten a lot smarter about doing the outreach,” said James Koppel, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the SNAP program in Minnesota. “The idea that ‘to be on food stamps is to be on welfare’ is no longer as common.”
But shifting attitudes are only part of the explanation. Minnesota nonprofits that serve poor communities also report growing economic distress among seniors hit by a potent mix of soaring health care premiums, high rents and dwindling retirement savings. Although the poverty rate among Minnesotans older than 65 is just 6.9 percent, below the overall state rate of 10.2 percent, that still adds up to nearly 54,000 elderly people living under the poverty line.
Across the state, visits by seniors to food shelves have soared by 49 percent since 2012 — far outpacing any other age category, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide relief group. All told, Minnesota seniors made nearly 53,000 more visits to food shelves in the first half of 2016 than over the corresponding period four years earlier.
Organizations that serve low-income seniors say they are struggling to keep pace with a surge in need. Last spring, First Lutheran Church in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul began serving a hot meal once a month for poor and isolated seniors, expecting a few dozen people to attend. Instead, nearly 150 people, mostly from the surrounding neighborhood, pour into the cafeteria each month.
On a recent Thursday, seniors began arriving at First Lutheran an hour before the noon meal, which included generous servings of lobster rolls, tomato basil soup, strawberries and cupcakes. After the meal, seniors left the cafeteria clutching bags of food and pamphlets on how to apply for SNAP and other benefits.
“For many people here, this may be the only hot meal they get for days,” said Janet Golden, executive director of East Side Elders, a St. Paul nonprofit that helps seniors stay in their homes and organizes the meal.
For Rhonda Wood, 61, of St. Paul, the search for fresh, affordable food is a challenge. Wood depends on Social Security for most of her income and said she has struggled to put food on the table since her landlord raised the rent by $100 a month and her health insurance deductible tripled — forcing her to pay more for her anti-migraine medications.
Once a month, she visits a local food shelf to stock up on bulk food items such as canned meat and pasta, but she still relies on her $58-a-month SNAP benefits to buy fresh vegetables and fruit.
Her one guilty pleasure is fresh grapes, which would be out of the question were it not for the SNAP program, she said. Once a week, she can toss a bundle of grapes into her grocery cart, along with some fresh vegetables.
“It sounds silly, but I really look forward to those grapes,” she said. “Food stamps are the difference between eating canned chicken and beans every day and having some actual fresh food. It’s super meaningful.”
Like thousands of other Minnesotans, Wood is a beneficiary of a statewide outreach effort to poor seniors. About five years ago, the state and nearly two-dozen agencies joined forces to bolster participation in SNAP. Social workers hosted seminars in senior apartment buildings, including the complex where Wood now lives, on how to cook nutritious meals and how to apply for SNAP. In 2013, the state introduced a simple, one-page application for seniors, replacing a cumbersome 32-page packet. It also allowed people to recertify for benefits every two years, eliminating the need to visit a county office every year.
Agencies also debunked some myths — the perception that people on Social Security could not qualify for SNAP, or that the benefits were too modest to justify filling out the application. In reality, elderly individuals living alone and enrolled in SNAP last year received $108 a month in benefits, according to federal data.
“For people on very fixed incomes, even $15 [a month] can make a difference in buying fruits and vegetables,” Kevin Concannon, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in a recent interview.
Vicki Parchman, 58, of Brooklyn Park, said she has witnessed firsthand the changing attitudes toward food stamps. In 1999, when she first started receiving the benefit, Parchman recalls feeling embarrassed when she would pull out the little coupons to pay for groceries. She could hear people whispering in the checkout line.
“People would judge you and say, ‘Look at what she’s buying with those stamps,’ like you’re a criminal,” she said. Now, with the electronic debit card, she can swipe for groceries without attracting attention. A volunteer at a local food shelf, she now helps educate others.
“Everything’s changed,” Wood said. “The seniors that I know who aren’t getting SNAP, they don’t think, ‘Oh, what’s she doing on food stamps?’ Instead it’s more like, ‘I really wish I could get that, too.”