Seniors reluctant to sign up for food stamps

When seniors come to Channel One Food Bank and Food Shelf in Rochester, Ursula Olson sometimes suggests they might be eligible for food stamps.

“They will say, ‘Oh no. No, no, no! This is enough for me. I’ll be fine,’ ” says Olson, a client intake specialist.

But later in the month, some seniors are back at the food shelf, asking for an extra visit because they couldn’t make the food stretch far enough.

Tonight on All Things Considered, we’ll have a story about seniors and Food Support, long known as food stamps. Older Minnesotans are less likely than many others to sign up, as only about one in four eligible seniors receives Food Support, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Overall, 66.1 percent of eligible Minnesotans participate. Outreach efforts all over the state aim to convince more seniors to enroll.

My story focuses on seniors in the southwest suburbs of Minneapolis. But those in less urban areas can be even more difficult to reach.

“Rural areas tend to be a challenge for outreach,” says Wendy Ogren, SNAP Outreach Manager at Second Harvest Heartland food bank. She says seniors can be reluctant to accept what they may perceive as a government handout – especially seniors in rural areas.

“There is perhaps even a stronger streak of independence for that population,” Ogren says. “They have survived on their own and been very resourceful for a very long time.”

There are other reasons seniors aren’t signing up. A 2009 study by The Boston Consulting Group found that many seniors, in both urban and rural areas, are unaware they’re eligible for the program. Others suspect they’ll get only a small benefit.

Recent changes to the Food Support program make it easier for seniors outside cities to apply. Some counties now offer phone interviews, so that seniors don’t have to travel to a county office.

Outreach to seniors will be increasingly important, Ogren says, as the number of older Minnesotans continues to increase.

“This is something that we’re really going to have to pay attention to in the years to come,” she says. “If we’re going to provide for everyone in need.”

In Rochester, Ursula Olson just keeps trying. She sees seniors from many parts of Olmsted County. On a senior’s fifth visit, or maybe the sixth, she’ll mention Food Support again.

“I’ll say again, ‘You can just call this lady, she’ll help you and you’ll be fine,’ ” Olson says.

Sometimes, if Olson has won their trust, they’ll make the call.

Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.