Hazel recently signed up for a program that provides financial aid for groceries — but only after county workers convinced her she really needed it.
"I was going to do it once before, and then I thought, 'I can get along without it,' " said Hazel, 86, who lives in a small town outside of Minneapolis. "I thought, 'Maybe there's others that need it worse.' "
Hazel didn't want her last name printed because she doesn't want her neighbors to know she's getting government assistance. Hazel's determined self-reliance is typical of her generation, said Jan O'Donnell, special projects coordinator with Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank in Duluth.
"Many seniors are so sensitive to what people might think about them," she said. "They just don't want to be a burden."
Just four in 10 Minnesotans 60 and older whose income makes them eligible for federal food assistance are enrolled, according to the state Department of Human Services (DHS). For those 60 and older, the monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit ranges from $16 to $80.
The reluctance to sign up for SNAP benefits is so widespread and utilization so low that AARP Minnesota has joined with anti-hunger groups, businesses and government agencies on a three-year project, the Nutritious Food Coalition, to help low-income older people apply for benefits.
Like Hazel, many don't realize that they are eligible for nutrition support if their income is less than $1,498 a month for a one-person household, O'Donnell said, and others may be intimidated by filling out a long form or disclosing personal information.
Jason Reed, director of strategy and corporate partnerships for Hunger-Free Minnesota, said people should consider SNAP benefits, like Social Security and Medicare, as something they contributed to while they were working.
To clear up misconceptions and reduce the stigma associated with receiving what was formerly called food stamps, Minnesota recently gave the program a makeover, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner for children and family services at the DHS. The name was changed from Food Support to SNAP; the asset limit was removed; and phone, instead of in-person, interviews were instituted. An online application is planned.
Statewide information blitz
Table tents, flyers, place mats and postcards about SNAP were sent to more than 2,000 senior meal programs, senior centers and food shelves — often called food banks and pantries elsewhere. Radio and bus ads explain the program, and reminders will be placed on grocery store receipts.
AARP Minnesota has posted online ads and is distributing SNAP information at its information center at the Mall of America. In the fall, AARP Minnesota will distribute information at the Minnesota State Fair and will conduct a tele-town hall meeting.
"We've been trying to tell people that applying might be easier than they think," said Amy McDonough, AARP Minnesota associate state director for advocacy. "It might be as simple as making a phone call."
Enrolling in SNAP is only one piece of the hunger-relief effort, said Jill Hiebert, spokeswoman of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, based in St. Paul.
With your own resources, with Meals on Wheels, maybe stopping at a food shelf, maybe stopping at a meal program a couple of times a week, we're really hoping that seniors won't have to skip meals or choose between food and their medication," she said.
Hazel, who ran a farm until her husband died, relied on her vegetable garden for much of her food until she couldn't tend it anymore. SNAP helps fill that gap, although she still struggles with accepting it.
Jennifer Woodford, executive director of the Channel One Food Bank and Shelf in Rochester, said she hopes the SNAP marketing project will help remove the stigma.
To apply for SNAP or to find out if you qualify, call the Minnesota Food Helpline toll-free at 1-888-711-1151.