Volunteers Help Older Iowans Sign Up for Food Assistance

AMES, Iowa – There’s no stigma to better health — that’s why older Iowans who qualify should learn about Food Assistance, a program to help people with limited income buy nutritious food.

The Iowa Food Assistance Program helps older adults stretch their food dollars to help them meet their basic food needs, said Kimberly Greder, a human development and family studies associate professor and specialist with Iowa State University Extension. She hopes Iowa’s older population will consider this educational message and take action.

Peers share information about Food Assistance

A new peer-to-peer program is making it easier for older Iowans with limited incomes to learn about and consider applying for Food Assistance, Greder said. ISU Extension is training volunteers with Retired Senior Volunteer Programs (RSVP) who will go to places where older adults gather, such as congregate meal sites and community centers, in several Iowa counties.

“The volunteers will talk about how Food Assistance can help older Iowans who have limited incomes buy the nutritious food they need, such as fresh produce, whole grain breads, lean meats and fish, which often are more expensive,” Greder said.

“Sometimes older adults who have limited incomes will compromise their health by cutting back on meals or purchasing food that has fewer nutrients because it costs less. They also may lower their thermostat or turn off their heat or reduce the recommended dosage of their medicine to save money,” Greder said. “Using Food Assistance to buy nutritious food frees up limited income that can be used for other expenses.”

The RSVP volunteers also are available to help older adults complete the online application for Food Assistance, Greder said. “However, volunteers are not able to determine eligibility; only the Iowa Department of Human Services can do that. You also can call a Human Services office near you and ask for an application to be sent to you.”

Iowans who think they might be eligible are encouraged to complete and submit an application, Greder said. “Then the Department of Human Services will get in touch with you and determine if you meet the income guidelines and are eligible.” 

Lindy Huisman is an RSVP volunteer in central Iowa who participated in a pilot project during the summer of 2010 and is continuing to volunteer.

“We are meeting these people in their own environment. We are explaining how to apply for the benefit. Basically we are trying to break down the barriers to help them receive funds to improve their diet and health,” Huisman said. “This is a benefit to improve their well-being.”

Partnership to reach older Iowans

ISU Extension is partnering with the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in specific Iowa counties in this effort. Coordination is also taking place with the Area Agencies on Aging and Chef Charles, a nutrition education program for older Iowans delivered through the Iowa Nutrition Network, the Iowa Department on Aging and local community organizations. These organizations want older Iowans with limited incomes to know that by using Food Assistance to buy nutritious food, more of their income is available to meet other expenses such as housing, transportation and medicine.

“Through Food Assistance, you receive a monthly dollar amount on an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) swipe card. When you use your card, the cost of the food you purchase is subtracted from your EBT account. You look like any other shopper buying food,” Greder said.

At a minimum, older adults who qualify receive $16 a month in benefits, Greder explained. “That may not sound like a lot, but when you multiply that by 12 months, it’s $192 a year in extra money to purchase food. However, the average qualifying household with older adults receives $116 a month in benefits, which is almost $1,400 a year to purchase food to maintain and improve health.” 

Making better food choices

Older Iowans who are receiving Food Assistance acknowledge that now they’re making better food choices as they stretch their limited income.

“When I would go to the grocery store before, I would buy the lowest price, even if it had a lot of fat or wasn’t good for me, because that’s what I could afford,” Vera said. “Now I have a little more relief. I can purchase what is really better for me.”

Dwayne said, “Most of the seniors I know are glad they get [Food Assistance]. … When you’re on fixed income, you’ll always come up short.”

John added that Food Assistance provides “peace of mind when you’re shopping, that you don’t have to worry that ‘I can’t have that’ or ‘I have to cut back.’”