- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Data from the state Department of Human Services shows the number of older Minnesotans who use food stamps is on the rise.

Last year, a record 58 percent of eligible seniors in Minnesota were enrolled in the program. That’s more than 50,000 people. And those ages 65 or older are now the fastest-growing segment of food stamp recipients in the state, the Star Tribune reported (https://strib.mn/2jTOj0h ).

A decade ago, just one-third of eligible seniors were enrolled. State officials say outreach to seniors and a streamlined enrollment process have been some factors in the increase. Applicants can now sign up online, be interviewed over the phone and receive their benefits card within days. In addition, the number of seniors has doubled since the Great Recession ended in 2009.

The increase also reflects a shift in attitudes toward the federal benefit known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“Times have changed, and we have gotten a lot smarter about doing the outreach,” said James Koppel, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Human Services. “The idea that ‘to be on food stamps is to be on welfare’ is no longer as common.”

But Minnesota nonprofits that serve low-income communities say there is also a growing need among seniors who face soaring health care premiums, high rents and dwindling retirement savings. Nearly 54,000 elderly people in Minnesota are under the poverty line.

Statewide, seniors also visited food shelves more. Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide relief group, says senior visits to food shelves have soared by 49 percent since 2012, more than any other age category.

Rhonda Wood, 61, of St. Paul, depends on Social Security and said she struggles to put food on the table since her rent increased and her health insurance deductible tripled. She goes to a local food shelf once a month for bulk items, but relies on her $58-a-month SNAP benefits to buy fresh vegetables and fruit.

She says her one guilty pleasure is fresh grapes, which she couldn’t afford if not for SNAP.

“It sounds silly, but I really look forward to those grapes,” she said. “Food stamps are the difference between eating canned chicken and beans every day and having some actual fresh food. It’s super meaningful.”

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Information from: Star Tribune, https://www.startribune.com

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