By David Lewellen
In a span of just three years, Diane Hills lost her job, had to sell her house and moved in with her sister and her family in Cambria, northeast of Madison.
“I had lost everything. I had no retirement funds left. I couldn’t even get a job flipping burgers,” said the former landscape architect.
While she was at a library in Portage last fall checking job openings, Hills, 53, saw a brochure about FoodShare, Wisconsin’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. She called and was approved for a $200-per-month FoodShare Quest debit card to buy groceries. That freed up money for gas and helped to ease the strain of staying with family by allowing her to contribute to meals.
In December, Hills found a new job and is now off FoodShare. But the assistance “was critical for me,” she said. “These programs are beyond lifesavers.”
Hills got help because she made the first call, but social service professionals say outreach is vital to connect older Wisconsinites to the services they qualify for.
As part of its outreach efforts, AARP Wisconsin last year began recruiting volunteers to help the nonprofit Faith in Action of Marathon County establish a “food ambassador” program. The volunteers are trained to visit people in their homes to help them apply for FoodShare and other services. by making referrals to the elderly benefits specialists at the Aging and Disability Resource Centers. FoodShare ambassadors will begin to complete the online application process with older people in their homes this fall.
Referrals of potential clients come from clergy, health care providers, family members, friends, neighbors and other clients.
“You can’t tell by talking to or looking at a senior if she’s hungry,” said Colleen Motley, program director for Faith in Action, which offers nonprofessional services to help older people stay in their homes. She told of visiting one woman whose cupboard contained only a can of coffee, a container of oatmeal and a loaf of bread.
“But she said, ‘I’ll get by.’ Most of our seniors think like that.”
Michelle Kramer, FoodShare outreach manager for Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, which is also working with AARP to reach more eligible recipients, said, “We do a lot of stigma-breaking. ... No one turns down Social Security or unemployment if they’re eligible for it, and people should feel that comfortable claiming FoodShare as well.”
Volunteers emphasize that taking the benefit does not deprive anyone else; it can go to everyone who is eligible. And those numbers are large: Data from the U.S. Census and the Wisconsin Department of Human Services together federal and state data show that about 180,000 Wisconsin residents 65 and older are eligible for FoodShare but don’t claim it.
Second Harvest is training outreach volunteers in its 16-county area to spread the word about FoodShare through talks at senior housing complexes, senior centers, clubs and health fairs.
Easy as using a credit card
AARP food ambassadors explain that the monthly financial benefit is now issued on a debit card accepted at convenience stores, grocery stores and some farmers markets. The volunteers help applicants contact a state benefit specialist to determine if the person is eligible.
The program does not have an asset test—you can own a house and car and still receive food benefits. Individuals whose monthly income is less than $1,862 are eligible ($2,522 for a couple). Some expenses, such as medical bills, can be deducted to reach these thresholds.
Sometimes, volunteers may help reduce food insecurity by other means. Pauline and Leonard Erdman’s income was too high for FoodShare, but they signed up for a bag of food every three weeks from a Wausau food bank. “I’m very thankful for the things Faith in Action is willing to do for us,” Pauline said.
When volunteer Dwala Smail visits people, she tries to dispel the stigma of accepting assistance. “Sometimes things you say can help change their minds to give it a try.”
To apply for FoodShare benefits, call 800-362-3002 or go online to access.wisconsin.gov.
David Lewellen is a freelance writer and editor in Glendale, Wis.