Thousands of older New Jersey adults who face hunger are missing out on critical assistance that helps put food on the table, according to data tools recently released by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), with support from AARP Foundation.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps low-income seniors and others afford the food they need to maintain their health and well-being, yet the FRAC map shows that less than half of eligible New Jersey seniors, age 60 or older, are using SNAP on average each month.

In federal fiscal year 2015, the most recent data available, nearly 265,000 New Jersey senior citizens were eligible for SNAP, but just 128,000 participated, meaning that nearly 137,000 eligible seniors were not receiving this critical assistance, according to FRAC’s data.

View FRAC’s interactive tables.
View FRAC’s Seniors & SNAP Primer.

“These maps show that far too many of New Jersey’s seniors are missing out on the health and nutritional benefits that SNAP provides,” said Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey. “Having enough food to eat is important for everyone, but it is particularly important as people age and become more susceptible to illness or when their life circumstances — such as limited mobility or a fixed income — make maintaining a healthy diet more difficult.”

In New Jersey and across the country, millions of older Americans struggle against hunger. In fact, 130,000 New Jersey households with senior citizens face hunger, according to FRAC’s analysis of U.S. Census data from 2014 to 2016.

“Food-insecure seniors often must choose between paying for food or medication,” said Stephanie Hunsinger, AARP NJ State Director. “SNAP helps ensure that seniors do not have to cut back on or skip meals altogether to pay for health care or other basic needs.”

In addition to staving off hunger, SNAP helps decrease the risk of hunger-related health problems, such as diabetes, hypertension and depression, studies show. Participation rates among eligible seniors vary across the nation, but all states, including New Jersey, have substantial room to grow SNAP participation among seniors, according to FRAC.

With 48 percent of eligible seniors participating, New Jersey is slightly ahead of the national average of 42 percent. By comparison, the state’s total SNAP participation rate among all eligible residents is 74 percent. This is lower than the national rate of 83 percent.

The average SNAP benefit for households with seniors was $123 in 2017, compared to $279 for households without seniors, according to FRAC’s tables.

SNAP is a vital resource for combatting hunger and improving nutrition, health and economic security, yet many SNAP-eligible seniors are not aware of the program or do not know they may qualify. Others may feel stigma about receiving food assistance or have difficulty navigating the application process, LaTourette said.

“Without the connection to and help of programs like SNAP, many seniors are not able to afford healthy foods or the foods that their doctors recommend,’’ said Melissa Chalker, executive director, New Jersey Foundation for Aging.  “Simplifying the application process for older adults, providing more outreach and education about SNAP and making changes, such as allowing for the use of SNAP benefits at restaurants or for prepared foods, would enhance the participation of older New Jersey residents in the SNAP program.’’

Overall SNAP participation in New Jersey – and across the nation – has been on a steady decline. In January 2019, 712,478 New Jersey residents, including children, seniors, the working poor and disabled, received benefits from this federal program – a 6 percent drop from January 2018.

At 70 percent, New York leads the nation in SNAP participation among eligible seniors, while California and Wyoming ranked as the two worst performing states, with participation rates among eligible seniors at 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively, FRAC’s data show.

“We are working with the New Jersey Department of Human Services to identify barriers to SNAP participation among older New Jersey residents and to formulate outreach strategies and other solutions that can boost participation,’’ LaTourette said.

This will likely include partnering with healthcare providers, senior centers, faith-based organizations and others to raise awareness of the availability of SNAP and help seniors apply, while also examining ways to make it easier for eligible elderly people to enroll in SNAP, she added.

“We’re optimistic that we will be able to advance effective solutions in the months to come,’’ LaTourette said. “The health and well-being of our oldest residents depend on it.’’

For more information, visit hungerfreenj.org.

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About Hunger Free New Jersey

Hunger Free New Jersey works to change policy and practice so that every New Jersey resident has healthy food to eat, every single day. Learn more at hungerfreenj.org.

About the Food Research & Action Center

The Food Research & Action Center is the leading national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States. Learn more at frac.org.

About AARP Foundation

AARP Foundation works to end senior poverty by helping vulnerable older adults build economic opportunity and social connectedness. As AARP’s charitable affiliate, we serve AARP members and nonmembers alike. Bolstered by vigorous legal advocacy, we spark bold, innovative solutions that foster resilience, strengthen communities and restore hope. Learn more at aarpfoundation.org

About the New Jersey Foundation for the Aging

The foundation’s mission is to promote services that enable older adults to live in the community with independence and dignity through a variety of means to address unmet needs and through increasing society’s awareness to influence public policy. Learn more at njfoundationforaging.org.