By Claudia Boyd-Barrett
At food banks across the state, it’s common to find Californians – including senior citizens – who get benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but still struggle to afford enough to eat.
The average monthly allotment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that senior households receive is $157, which is frequently not enough to make it through the month.
So, to help this population age 60 and older stay nourished while juggling the costs of medicines, housing and other needs, food banks pick up the slack.
Now, food banks and advocates for seniors are nervously eyeing a looming threat to the nutritional wellbeing of the poor, elderly and disabled: a proposed $193 billion cut to federal funding for SNAP over the next 10 years. The cuts to the program, which was once called food stamps and goes by the name CalFresh in California, were proposed as part of President Trump’s 2018 budget.
The decrease in federal support would put California in the untenable position of having to rustle up an extra $1.8 billion a year to maintain the already meager benefits provided through the CalFresh program.
“This would basically blow a hole in our state budget that we would have to backfill with general fund money in order to keep our CalFresh participation rate – which is already low –at the same level,” said Jared Call with the non-profit California Food Policy Advocates.
“We would just be unable to absorb that kind of significant cost shift without cutting benefits and taking away other stuff that would ultimately increase hunger, poverty and hardship.”
Participation in CalFresh is particularly low among seniors in California. That’s not due to a lack of need, but because of misinformation, stigma, a burdensome application process and complex rules determining who qualifies, experts said. Currently, just 18 percent of seniors eligible for food stamps actually receive them. That’s despite a doubling in the number of food-insecure seniors in the state between 2011 and 2014, according to California Food Policy Advocates.
The California Department of Social Services is ramping up efforts to get more seniors enrolled in CalFresh by making it easier for them to apply. Any cuts to the program from the federal government would severely undermine that effort, said Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs for the California Association of Food Banks.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” Cheyne said.
To add to the problem, the President’s budget also suggests doing away with a requirement that food stamp recipients receive a minimum of $16 a month. Primarily seniors and people with disabilities qualify for this minimum amount. Without it, people could see their food stamp benefits dwindle to almost nothing, or they may not bother applying for the help at all, advocates said.
Cheyne said California food banks are mobilizing to protest the proposed cuts. If the funding changes move ahead, as well as suggested cuts to other programs that benefit seniors such as Meals on Wheels, food banks themselves could be in trouble, Cheyne said.
“I think you would see an extraordinary strain on the emergency food system,” he said. “We’re not built to permanently supply nutrition to populations like seniors. We are truly an emergency food network that is already stretched.”