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AARP seeks to close hunger gap for seniors

Erie County has a growing number of senior citizens who struggle with hunger, and while many are eligible for government aid, most are not getting that assistance, according to a report released by AARP New York.

More needs to be done to break down the barriers that keep eligible senior citizens from getting help, said Bruce Boissonnault, a member of the AARP Executive Council.

Among the available programs to help them is the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps.

“Currently, half of potentially eligible older adults in New York State are not receiving food assistance through the SNAP program, and AARP estimates that here, in Erie County, the gap is even greater, with an estimated 72 percent of likely eligible older adults not receiving the benefit,” Boissonnault said.

The report, “Hunger Among Older New Yorkers: Breaking Down Barriers,” is an outgrowth of a 2012 summit with stakeholders from around the state. It contains a number of recommendations on how to make it easier for income-eligible senior citizens to access the benefits.

Boissonnault shared ideas from the report during a news conference Friday at Hispanics United of Buffalo on Virginia Street. He was joined by representatives from other organizations and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

“Nothing in here is really that surprising,” Poloncarz said of the 27-page report.

“What it proves is that there are individuals in our community that are going to bed hungry, including seniors, and we should not be putting people in a situation where that’s the case,” Poloncarz said.

The report recommends simplifying the SNAP enrollment process, simplifying the current six-page application and extending the annual benefits recertification period to three years for senior citizens.

“Other states, like Alabama, Florida and Georgia, have had success in implementing these changes,” Boissonnault said.

The report also suggests that state agencies share data, so that those who may be eligible for SNAP might be identified on the basis of having also qualified for Medicaid or Home Energy Assistance Program benefits.

“Using a data-driven approach has the potential to identify thousands of older New Yorkers who are eligible – but not enrolled – in SNAP, some of whom may not even know about the program,” Boissonnault said.

Michael Weiner, president of United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, said local agencies that provide services to older adults should also focus collectively on coming up with solutions to improve the quality of life for seniors citizens across the county.

“Erie County is home to the nation’s ninth-oldest population, and it continues to grow rapidly,” Weiner said.

Poloncarz called the county the first line of defense for seniors seeking assistance. Randall Hoak, the county’s commissioner of senior services, said his department has been increasing its outreach efforts to not only provide information on how to access SNAP benefits, but help seniors pursue healthy eating.

“Today, we have a crew that is over at Baptist Manor, and they’re coupling that with a cooking demonstration,” Hoak said.

Christine Deska, senior program specialist with AARP New York, called lack of awareness one of the major barriers to senior citizens’ accessing SNAP benefits, and the perceived stigma some feel about accessing public benefits as another barrier.

AARP also wants the state to implement a standard medical deduction for senior citizens who access SNAP benefits. Deska said many seniors don’t bother to apply for SNAP because they feel the amount they will receive is too small, though many are unaware that they can deduct their out-of-pocket medical expenses and receive a higher benefit for each month, well beyond the minimum of $16 per month.

“The average SNAP benefit for a household with one senior is actually $170 a month, which goes a long way,” Deska said.