By Paige Parker
Marian Traina remembers the afternoon an older man took her aside at a southern Oregon community center to tell her he was hungry.
“He said, ‘I just don’t have any food in my house,’ ” said Traina, 79, who works for the Oregon State University Extension Service. Her job includes helping older people who qualify apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
Traina accompanied him to the nearest Department of Human Services office, 25 miles away. He applied for and received SNAP benefits on the spot in the form of a debit card known as the Oregon Trail Card. When she ran into him again a month later, he hugged her.
Anti-hunger advocates like Traina struggle to persuade older Oregonians to apply for SNAP benefits.
Because of disability or transportation issues, some older people only leave home to buy groceries, see the doctor or go to the pharmacy. That’s why Traina, of Central Point, travels around Jackson and Josephine counties, visiting food banks, senior centers, churches and Food & Friends lunch sites.
Oregon is 3rd hungriest
The person-to-person approach tends to work best, said Nancy Weed, SNAP outreach manager for the nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.
“The best way of reaching a senior is through another senior,” she said.
Data suggests many older Oregonians go hungry. Only one in three eligible Oregonians over 60 receives SNAP benefits.
For low-income people 50 to 59, Oregon ranks third in the nation for food insecurity, according to a 2011 study sponsored by AARP Foundation.
Those findings prompted AARP Oregon to bring together hunger advocacy groups to form the Older Oregonian Hunger Coalition, said Bandana Shrestha, AARP Oregon community engagement director.
The coalition supports increasing SNAP funding and numerous federal and state bills that would broaden food assistance programs. Coalition members also favor developing standardized hunger screening questions for doctors, who could then distribute information about SNAP benefits. Some Meals on Wheels volunteers share SNAP applications with clients, but the coalition hopes to see this standardized, too.
They also urge people in need to call Oregon’s toll-free “211info” line to find help through local social services.
AARP Oregon officials will ramp up their SNAP outreach efforts in July, Shrestha said. They will be giving presentations on the importance of healthy nutrition and SNAP benefits. The presentations will be held in workplaces, churches and farmers markets.
The embarrassment factor
Embarrassment and concern that others need the help more deter many older Oregonians from applying for SNAP benefits, Shrestha said. They may not realize that debit cards have replaced paper food stamps, easing some of the stigma at the checkout counter. Or they may think they must stand in a long line in a government office. Today they can begin the application process over the phone or online.
The average SNAP benefit for an older Oregonian is about $90 a month, Weed said, but many talk themselves out of applying because they think they’ll only qualify for the $16 minimum monthly benefit.
Traina has a ready answer for anyone who gives that as a reason for not applying: “If I were to hand you $16, would you tell me you didn’t want it or you couldn’t use it?” she asks. “Do you turn down your Social Security check? I don’t.”
Single adults with a monthly income of $1,771 or less—$2,391 for couples—can qualify for SNAP benefits. Out-of-pocket medical expenses are deducted from income when calculating eligibility for people 60 and older. Oregonians can qualify for SNAP benefits even if they have a small savings account and own a home or car.
Traina estimates she has given out more than 350 SNAP applications in the last two years.
“I have found from the middle of the month through the end of the month people are more interested because their money has started running out,” she said.
To learn about SNAP eligibility guidelines and how to apply, or to find local SNAP offices, call 211 or 800-SAFENET
—By Paige Parker