During this summer’s White House Conference on Aging, the U-S Department of Agriculture announced the start of a new pilot program to increase low-income seniors’ access to healthy food. The USDA hopes to allow seniors to use food stamp benefits on grocery delivery programs, a service that could help low-income seniors remain at home rather than moving to an assisted-living facility.
US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said lack of transportation to grocery stores is one of the biggest reasons almost 3 million seniors struggle to access healthy foods. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help low-income seniors afford groceries, but less than half of eligible seniors use the program.
“It's our view that one of the reasons that they're not participating [in SNAP] is that they may be in a place where it's difficult to access good food,” Vilsack said.
That’s why the USDA included a change to SNAP program in the 2014 Farm Bill. Under the new rules, nonprofit and government organizations that purchase and deliver groceries will be able to process SNAP payments, just like a grocery store or a farmers market. The USDA will soon begin a year-long pilot program before the changes take effect.
Some grocery stores already offer grocery delivery services, including several Hy-Vee locations in Columbia. But the new changes to SNAP are only available to government and nonprofit organizations, so existing commercial services don't accept SNAP through their delivery programs.
And finding nonprofit programs to process SNAP benefits may be a challenge.
“They really can't afford the time or the money to process two payments,” said Executive Director Mary Jo Schifsky of Store-to-Door, a nonprofit organization in Minnesota that provides grocery shopping and delivery services for seniors.
Store-to-Door has been around for over 30 years but Schifsky said there are only a handful of organizations like it because people aren’t aware of a need for these programs.
“The aging population, people are very aware that it is going to be a very large and needy population. But there's not a really cohesive or coherent plan to address their needs,” Schifsky said. “The goal for everybody is to remain in their home. It's much less expensive and people tend to be healthier there but to stay in your home, you really need services.”
But Vilsack said the USDA is hopeful that providing easier ways to pay for the groceries will encourage the creation of more delivery programs in states like Missouri.
“When you basically provide a vehicle for paying for the grocery and so forth, it creates the incentive for people to look for ways in which that business opportunity can be taken advantage of,” Vilsack said.