By Cristina Rouvalis
Whenever he’s at the doctor’s office, senior center or elsewhere in his hometown of Clairton, Bill Donnelly, 79, hands out postcards in hopes that one of his contemporaries will go to bed less hungry.
“Hey, good looking,” he’ll say if he’s speaking to a woman—a line that inevitably elicits a smile and provides a playful opening for a serious subject. “We are working on trying to get people enrolled in the SNAP program.”
“SNAP?” she might ask. SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, he explains.
Donnelly is one of several dozen AARP Pennsylvania volunteers who encourage eligible older people to sign up by handing out hundreds of postcards with information on how to apply statewide by calling 800-528-9594.
In this former steel town outside of Pittsburgh, Donnelly knows many people his age who are embarrassed to sign up for a program administered by the state Department of Public Welfare. “People have their pride,” he said. “But if we get 1 out of 10 or even 1 out of 100 people, it’s worth it.”
347,000 are ‘food insecure’
The campaign has paid off: Since February 2012, roughly 500 older people in Allegheny County who were told about SNAP by AARP have enrolled for food assistance. The postcard campaign is also operating in the Philadelphia area.
AARP Pennsylvania estimates there are 347,000 people 50 and over who are “food insecure”—meaning they don’t have the money or find it difficult to leave their homes to buy sufficient groceries.
The problem is especially acute in the 1st Congressional District, which encompasses Chester, South Philadelphia and parts of North Philadelphia. The Food Research and Action Center recently named it the hungriest district in the state and 20th nationwide. In Philadelphia, about 22,000 seniors—about 8 percent of those 50 and over—said they skipped meals because they were short of funds, according to an AARP report.
“People are falling through the cracks,” said Bill Johnston-Walsh, AARP Pennsylvania state director.
“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 said.
Older people strapped for money often buy inexpensive but unhealthy processed food, which can lead to diabetes, heart problems, obesity and other health issues.
To qualify for SNAP, individuals must have a monthly net income of $931 or less; $1,261 or less for a couple.
In May 2012, the state, which administers the federal program, reinstated household asset limits of $5,500 for those 59 and under and $9,000 for households that include at least one person 60 and over or disabled. One car and house are exempt from the asset limit. Initially the state had proposed more restrictive asset limits of $2,000 and $3,250, respectively.
“We pushed back,” said Johnston-Walsh. AARP is fighting to abolish all asset restrictions. “We tell people to save for retirement. Then we tell them, ‘Thank you for saving but you can’t eat this week.’ ”
Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said the state reinstated asset limits to ensure that people tap their own resources before turning to the government for assistance.
In addition to the SNAP outreach campaign, AARP and AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP, also support food banks and Drive to End Hunger, a public awareness campaign whose spokesman is NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
AARP will continue the person-to-person SNAP campaign through next year.
For more information about SNAP, call the Department of Public Welfare Helpline at 800-692-7462.
Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.