Senior citizens could start using food stamps to pay for groceries to be delivered to their homes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed allowing homebound seniors and disabled persons touse benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to cover the cost of food delivery from government and non-profit agencies. The Department is currently seeking 20 programs to host the one-year pilot program.
In a conversation with TIME, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the programs could help more seniors live as independently as his wife’s aunt. He recalled that the 93-year-old did not like the idea of living in a nursing home, but wasn’t able to go to the grocery store on her own because of a broken hip.
“Having services delivered to her enabled her to stay in that home with greater dignity for a longer period of time,” says Vilsack. “I’m sure that there are a lot of Aunt Jessie’s out there that will benefit from this program for a multitude of reasons.”
Seniors have long been able to use services such as Meals on Wheels to have food delivered to their homes, paid on a sliding scale based on their income. But allowing food stamps to be used would open up the program to a lot more seniors. Some experts think it might encourage more seniors to sign up for food stamps as well.
About 9.3 million American seniors are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have consistent access to nutritious, affordable food, but only about four million of those seniors are on food stamps.
Still, getting seniors enrolled in SNAP can be a challenge. The application process can be cumbersome and many seniors think the benefits aren’t worth the effort—in 2013, the average elderly SNAP recipient received $113 a month in benefits. Katie Jantzi, program manager of the Central Virginia hunger-relief organization FeedMore, says elderly clients—who are already able to use their SNAP benefits to pay for meals if they choose to and fill out the paperwork—face particular challenges when it comes to enrolling in the program.
As an example, she cited an isolated, elderly man living on a fixed income in a rural area with shaky vision and hearing who’s easily confused would likely benefit from having the extra resources that SNAP provides, but getting him through the application process would be difficult.
“He can’t hear on the phone to answer questions, can’t see the application and he can’t drive to the local services department to fill it out in person,” Jantzi explains.
And some seniors are simply too proud to take what they consider to be a government handout, says National Foundation to End Senior Hunger president Enid Borden.
“This is a generation that says, ‘I don’t want a handout,’” says Borden, who is supportive of the USDA’s new plan. “They don’t understand it’s not a handout, it’s a helping hand.”
The pilot program USDA is proposing wouldn’t directly tackle the issue of getting seniors enrolled, though there are existing programs to increase enrollment. Yet those who work in the space, like Ellie Hollander, the national president and CEO of Meals on Wheels, say that addressing senior hunger in every way possible is important.
“Here we have the opportunity to do not only what’s socially and morally right, but what’s economically brilliant,” says Hollander. “We can feed a senior meals on wheels for an entire year for less than the cost of that same senior being in the hospital one day, or in a [nursing home] one week.”
Adds Vilsack, “If you want to reduce health care costs, if you want to avoid unnecessary health care expense, one way to do that is to make sure that senior citizens get adequately nourished.”