Food Aid Expansion Expected to Help Low-Income Seniors Improve Their Health

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For years, Dorothy Lowery of San Pedro has struggled to get by on the less than $700 a month she receives in Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The 72-year-old, who said she has pre-diabetes, knows she needs to eat nutritious food and keep the weight off. But after paying her utilities, car insurance and other bills each month, Lowery barely has enough money left over to buy cheap food at the dollar store, let alone the fruits, vegetables and protein needed for a balanced diet.

That changed on June 1, when Lowery and about 500,000 other seniors and disabled people in California who receive SSI became newly eligible for food aid through the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh. The benefits expansion follows passage of a state law last year that reversed a 1970’s-era policy of excluding recipients of SSI and a state supplementary payment called SSP from the food stamps program.

“It’s about time. Somebody came to their senses,” said Lowery. “This was way past due.”

SSI and SSP is provided to low-income seniors and disabled people who don’t qualify for traditional Social Security benefits because they have an insufficient work history. This includes former housewives, farmworkers, domestic workers and other people paid “off the books,” according to Californians for SSI, a statewide coalition of social services organizations that campaigns for changes to the SSI program. More than two-thirds of seniors who receive SSI are women, according to the organization.

The amount people receive in SSI and SSP, a maximum of $931 a month for an individual, leaves recipients below the federal poverty level, making it difficult for them to cover their basic needs, including food. This lack of access to food can in turn affect their health, said John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan, an affordable health care plan serving more than 2 million low-income people in Los Angeles County.

“Food insecurity is a major problem for many of our members,” Baackes said. “If they’re not eating properly, that will affect their status of health, and particularly if they’re being diagnosed with something we know has a dietary impact.”

People who have congestive heart failure, for example, need to eat a low-sodium diet. But it’s hard to do that if you can only afford processed, salty food, Baackes said. Likewise, obesity and diabetes are often caused by poor nutrition, but it’s challenging for low-income people to change their eating habits if they can’t pay for healthier options.

Baackes saidthe LA Health Care Plan has been working hard to get the word out about the CalFresh expansion and to enroll people. It’s opening new community resource centers in neighborhoods across the county, where people can receive health education and get help signing up for benefits.

Almost 240,000 of the plan’s members currently receive SSI and are expected to become eligible for food assistance under the new law. The benefit can total up to $192 a month per person, depending on income.

“We’re very anxious to spread the word,” Baackes said. “This CalFresh expansion is a great first step to getting more people who have food issues involved in a program that should give them the resources to access healthier food.” 

For Lowry, receiving CalFresh will mean she can buy fresh instead of canned vegetables, a greater variety of fruits, and meat that actually tastes good, she said. She’s already making plans to cook salmon croquettes with canned salmon, red bell peppers and onions as soon as she gets her first benefit card.

“I won’t have an excuse to buy that cheap stuff,” she said. “I’ll be able to do what I need to do. This is really going to help.”

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