How Seniors Can Access Fresh Produce Through Government Programs

During September we are continuing the theme of highlighting the benefits of healthy eating. This is the first of two posts focused on how seniors on a limited budget can access nutritional food.

Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is widely acknowledged as the most important thing one can do to improve one’s health and well-being through diet. Yet alongside that widely acknowledged fact is the myth that fresh fruits and vegetables are unaffordable for those with a limited income. On the contrary, there are many programs—both public and private—to help seniors afford nutritious food.

The largest and most well-known program to increase food access is the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the Food Stamp Program. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net,” benefiting “millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families.”

Few Seniors Utilize Benefits

One of the unknown facts of this seemingly well-known program is that many seniors who are eligible for SNAP benefits don’t receive them. According to AARP, 67 percent of eligible individuals 60 and older do not receive eligible benefits, despite the fact that many have paid into the system through their taxes for decades and it is easy to apply for the benefits.

According to the Harris School of Policy Studies 2009 study at the University of Chicago, once seniors are initially enrolled they are no more likely to drop SNAP enrollment than any other age group. However, the challenge lies in the initial adoption.

AARP suggests that the reasons why seniors don’t sign up for this benefit is because they are embarrassed, feel that by accepting benefits they are taking away from others or are simply unaware of the program. The University of Chicago study mirrors these findings, stating that “60 percent of eligible non-participants are unaware of their eligibility.” The National Council on Aging (NCOA) observed similar reasons for low-adoption rates for SNAP among seniors, pointing to mobility, technology and again stigma and shame for accepting public benefits. Furthermore, some seniors are discouraged by myths about how SNAP works and who can qualify.

NCOA has promoted initiatives to increase the adoption rates by seniors, including funding partner programs that assist older adults with the enrollment process. This can range from help understanding criteria for income eligibility or simply using encouraging messaging about how SNAP is “saving money,” instead of seniors “receiving benefits” or “welfare.”

Increased Access to Farm-Fresh Foods

Many states now allow SNAP recipients to not only use their benefits at any grocery store, but at farmers’ markets. Farmers markets in all 50 states now accept EBT SNAP cards and more and more markets are offering program that allow seniors to double their SNAP funds. A November, 2014 NPR article points out that the success of a number of local initiatives at farmers’ markets across the country—such as at the Crossroads Farmers Market just outside of Washington, D.C. where a combination of donors and private foundations contributed to double EBT funds—led to the passing of a 2014 farm bill “that included a program to boost SNAP dollars when they’re spent on fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The State of Washington now offers a Fresh Bucks program which “matches SNAP funds, dollar-for-dollar up to $10 per cardholder per market, per day.” While it is true that not all programs operate in the same fashion, in many instances, customers with EBT cards can visit the market information booth to receive a transfer voucher. The customer then decides “how much he or she would like to spend…and the account is verified using a cell phone.” After that “the market provides the customer with wooden tokens” to be spent on farm-fresh foods at individual vendor booths. In addition to the SNAP program, “fresh, nutritious, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, honey and fresh-cut herbs can [also] be purchased with Seniors Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) benefits. “Coupons are issued to eligible SFMNP participants to buy eligible foods from farmers, farmers’ markets, roadside stands or CSAs that have been approved by the State agency to accept SFMNP coupons.”

Through government programs low-income seniors can improve not only their nutritional health, but also support their local food producers. Moreover, those who are concerned about the economic ramifications of programs like SNAP can take heart in the fact that the USDA cites that every $5 spent using SNAP generates $9 in economic activity.

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