Two years ago, Theresa Dickey heard that she and her husband might qualify for food stamps. Their total retirement income--Social Security and two pensions--came to less than $1,500 per month.She was 86, her husband nearly 90. They had some health problems, and medical bills of up to $200 a month. So she applied, and was approved.
Then came The Letter.
"They said I hadn't told them about my bank account, and that if I didn't report all of my assets immediately, I could be prosecuted," she says. "Well, that was it for me. I just walked away. I couldn't let them take all our savings. My savings are for the things we can't afford to pay for--what if we need a new roof? Where will I get the money?"
Not to worry, Maria Cimini tells Mrs. Dickey. The rules changed in 2009, and now the food stamp program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Couples with less than $2,600 in monthly retirement income don't have to answer any questions about bank accounts or cash in the house; how much they qualify for depends on their expenses. The average benefit is $91 per month.
"Really, it is much easier to apply now, and I can help you do it today," Cimini says.
Cimini works with the SNAP Outreach program at the University of Rhode Island's Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America. It's a collaborative effort with the Rhode Island Department of Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture. Their mission is to find people who qualify for SNAP benefits and enroll them in the program, which can mean the difference between good health and malnutrition.
Cimini visits senior centers and high-rise apartments for the elderly statewide, letting the residents know that many of them qualify for food aid.
Cimini spoke with Mrs. Dickey at The Center, South Kingstown's center for senior services at 25 St. Dominic Road in Wakefield. While The Center was fairly busy on a mid-week morning, few people stopped by Cimini's table to ask about SNAP.
It's a shame, says Cimini. While many elderly Rhode Islanders qualify for SNAP, they either don't know that they qualify or they are ashamed to admit that they need assistance, she says. Some say they don't want to take food from those who "really" need it, when in fact SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning anyone who qualifies will get the benefit.
People like Mrs. Dickey and her husband, who live in their own home, are the hardest to find. If she hadn't walked by Cimini's table, she never would have learned the program's requirements had changed.
"Well, I think I will give it a try," she says. "Every little bit helps."