Most people have heard the term “food stamps,” but if you have not used the program yourself or helped another person use it, you may not understand what the program entails.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – often referred to as “food stamps” – is the
third largest social safety net program in the U.S. The federal SNAP program is administered in Wisconsin through the FoodShare program.1

The
purpose of the program is to supplement the food budget of needy families, so they can purchase healthy food and move toward self-sufficiency. After unemployment insurance, it is the
most responsive federal program providing additional assistance during economic downturns.

Fewer Older Adults Use FoodShare

Nationally, roughly 82% of eligible individuals participated in the program in 2018.2 However, there is a great disparity in utilization when it comes to older adults. Only 48% of eligible individuals age 60 or over actually participated in the program in 2018.3

Some common reasons for underutilization among older adults include:

  • unfamiliarity with the program in general;

  • they do not know that they are eligible for the program;

  • they have fear or shame for using public benefits;

  • a belief that accepting benefits takes money away from families/children;

  • concern that applications and renewals are cumbersome; and

  • fear that public benefits affects immigration status.

Tips to Address the Issue

Here are some tips for addressing the underutilization of SNAP by older adults:

Promote the program and eligibility requirements. Explain that the purpose of the program is to supplement nutritional needs and make sure individuals do not have to forgo things like medication or housing costs in order to eat. At a very general level, households with gross income below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) or net income below 100% FPL are
eligible for FoodShare in Wisconsin.

Explain that paper stamps are no longer used. In the past, a person receiving SNAP benefits would need to use paper stamps at the cash register. Now, money is loaded electronically each month to the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card (called the QUEST card in Wisconsin). This card, which looks just like a credit or debit card, can be used at any of the estimated
4,100 retailers that accept SNAP in Wisconsin.

In addition to brick-and-mortar retailers,
five online retailers now allow use of the QUEST card: ALDI, Amazon, Schnuck’s Market, Walmart, and Woodman’s Markets. More online retailers are expected to join this list in the coming months.

Knowing that use of the QUEST card is more discreet than the previous paper stamp system can help reduce some hesitation with taking the benefit.

Clarify that receipt of FoodShare benefits does not affect other eligible families and children. One of the most common reasons older adults resist FoodShare benefits is because they believe it takes money away from more needy families and children.

However, the State of Wisconsin administers federal SNAP funds through the FoodShare program for all people who meet eligibility requirements.4 And as mentioned, it is an underutilized benefit. This means there is more money available than is taken across all populations.

Point out how the program benefits local economies. Sometimes, it is helpful to let older adults know that, by taking the benefit, they are actually helping support their local economies. It is estimated that
even in a weak economy, $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity.5

As an
example, in 2009 (the peak year of the recession), $50 billion in SNAP dollars created $85 billion in local economy activity. In addition, many farmers’ markets offer
voucher programs, where each SNAP dollar can be converted to up to $2 to use at the market, again supporting local farmers and businesses.

Describe the application and renewal process. For adults age 50 and older, there are no work requirements to obtain FoodShare benefits.6 All that is required is an initial phone interview and
application, as well as submission of verifications of income and household expenses (which can be done by mail, online, or even through an app).

After eligibility is established, a twelve-month renewal is required. Even if a household were to receive the minimum monthly benefit of $20, this equals $240 per year. Is an annual renewal worth $240? Probably, for most individuals.

Confirm that FoodShare has no bearing on immigration status. In March 2021, the Public Charge Rule
returned to the standards set forth in the Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999 Interim Field Guidance.7 This means that SNAP benefits are
not a consideration when a person is seeking admission into the U.S. or lawful permanent residence (LPR or “green card” status). When an individual receives FoodShare benefits, it has no effect on themselves or any other household or family members.

Unfortunately, the public messaging about this rule over the past several years has caused a “chilling effect” when it comes to acceptance of benefits. We can help individuals understand that this rule no longer applies to FoodShare.

Highlight additional benefits. Currently, due to the public health emergency (PHE), the FoodShare program is providing the maximum benefit amount for each household size. This means that even if a household of one only qualifies for the minimum $20 benefit per month,
COVID-19 protections are providing the maximum benefit of $250 per month. This is in addition to an added 15% to the standard household benefit through September 2021.

Furthermore, in addition to the farmers market voucher program mentioned above, the
Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program distributes coupons that can be exchanged for eligible foods at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Individuals who are at least 60 years old (and Native Americans age 55 and older) with household incomes of not more than 185% FPL can participate.

Also, in August 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a re-evaluation of the
Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to calculate SNAP benefits. As a result, the average SNAP benefit – excluding additional funds provided as part of pandemic relief – will increase for Fiscal Year 2022. This means that an additional
$317 million will become available to Wisconsin residents beginning Oct. 1, 2021.

Where to Find Out More

Anyone can help promote SNAP benefits, especially for older adults. For any questions about the FoodShare program in Wisconsin (including eligibility requirements), individuals can contact their local
Income Maintenance or Tribal Agency or the
Department of Health & Human Services (DHS) website.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
Public Interest Law Section Blog. The blog is a section benefit. Visit the State Bar
sections or the
Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

Endnotes

1 7 U.S.C. §§ 2011 – 2036; Wis. Stat. § 49.79.

2 Sarah Lauffer & Alma Vigil, “Trends in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation Rates: Fiscal Year 2016 to Fiscal Year 2018,” USDA, May 2021.

3
Id.

4 7 U.S.C. §§ 2011 – 2036; Wis. Stat. § 49.79.

5 Mark Zandi, “Assessing the Macroeconomic Impact of Economic Impact of Fiscal Stimulus 2008,”
Moody’s Analytics (January 2008), at 3-4.

6 7 C.F.R. § 273.24 (c)(1).

7 64 Fed. Reg. 101 (May 26, 1999); 86 Fed. Reg. 48 (March 15, 2021).