Elder hunger is a serious problem in the United States; nearly 9 million older adults are at risk of hunger. In New York City, close to one in six elderly residents – nearly 154,000 people – receives food from soup kitchens or soup pantries. Sixteen percent of New York City residents age 65 or older reported paying for medical care instead of food.
According to the AARP Foundation, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is one of the best options available to increase food purchasing power for low- income older adults. For many seniors, however, the application process is complex and daunting.
Richard Schneiderman, a retired human resources manager and Brooklyn resident, was having trouble receiving SNAP benefits to which he believed he was entitled. Numerous calls to the local SNAP office went unreturned.
ReServists Zina Zimmerman and Marjee Mosley from the SNAP Outreach Program helped Richard gather together the required documentation. They walked him through the application process, and when minimal benefits were provided, with the appeals process to have them increased. They reached out to the SNAP office on his behalf.
As a result of their efforts, his benefits were substantially increased.
“Marjee and Zina were extremely kind and caring throughout the whole process,” Richard said. “They were very patient and explained everything in great detail.”
Since 2011, the SNAP Outreach program – a partnership between ReServe, the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, Inc. (CSCS), AARP and NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA) – has secured approximately $5 million in benefits for over 5,000 New York City seniors. The program strives to end elder hunger by raising awareness and increasing senior participation in SNAP and other food and benefits programs.
The program employs 24 ReServists who assist older adults with their applications for benefits. Working in outreach teams, the ReServists meet with seniors at approximately 60 sites throughout New York City, including senior centers and public libraries, and at up to 10 monthly outreach events. A follow-up team reviews applications to ensure that seniors are getting the benefits for which they are eligible.
CSCS, which oversees the program, is a membership organization comprised of more than 200 senior service agencies that serve over 300,000 senior citizens throughout New York City. It helps member agencies provide quality programming, advocacy and training to seniors.
Igal Jellinek, CSCS Executive Director, said that the peer-to-peer outreach provided by ReServists is a key to the success of the SNAP Outreach Program. ReServe is a fantastic organization that fills an important need. People want to have a purpose when they grow older, and there are too few opportunities for seniors to give back.
“Working in the SNAP outreach program requires a great deal of patience and empathy, and it is very inspiring to watch ReServists work with seniors,” he said. “They are having a huge impact, and because of them this program has become a model for community outreach.”
Jennifer Brown, Benefits Outreach Manager for CSCS, said that ReServists also provide eligibility assessments for the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program, which covers the cost of rent increases for eligible seniors so they can continue to live at home, and the Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps subsidize energy costs.
The experience and independence of the ReServists, and the passion they bring to their work, has made a strong impression on Jennifer.
“They all have so much expertise and talent and contribute not only to the SNAP program but to everything that we are doing,” she said.
The ReServists are eager participants in ongoing training, said Karol Tapias, Director of Training and Innovation for CSCS. SNAP eligibility requirements change annually. There are also policy changes that occur on a regular basis. For example the Farm Bill of 2014, which oversees SNAP, made many changes to the program, and ReServists had to be trained on how these changes impact clients.
From a programmatic perspective, the SNAP Outreach Program is a singular and innovative model that is replicable and highly flexible, based on the individual needs of clients.
“The ReServists themselves are what make it work,” Karol said. “When clients walk into a room and see their peers they are very reassured.”
Melba Boyar became a ReServist in the fall of 2013. A retired foodservice manager who worked at hospitals, nursing homes and universities, Melba brings a wealth of managerial experience to ReServe, where she serves on the SNAP outreach team.
Melba described the team as a group of committed individuals who have become close friends. They have bonded over a love of service and in sharing an adventure as they travel to sites throughout the five boroughs, learning about the city and each other.
“The work is very rewarding,” Melba said. “It is wonderful to see the joy and relief of our clients when they learn that benefits have been restored or increased.”
To be effective, ReServists must gain the trust of seniors. Questions have to be asked in ways that respect client privacy. Many of the seniors are alone, and see these meetings as an opportunity to tell stories and make connections with caring and sympathetic peers. Patience and empathy are paramount when engaging clients.
At the sites, team members reach out to seniors who may not know about the outreach team. In one instance Melba met a gentleman in the lobby of a senior center and invited him to meet with the team but he declined, saying he was ineligible for SNAP benefits.
Melba persisted and the man attended, and found out that he was in fact eligible.
“No one had taken the time to encourage him,” she said.
Prior to becoming a ReServist, Marjee Mobley spent ten years as a developer of employment and training programs for the NYC Department of Employment. In 2008 she was hired by Easter Seals as an employment specialist, where she worked for five years. She retired and joined ReServe, where she was engaged by CSCS as a follow-up specialist for the SNAP Outreach Program.
“The process can be extremely stressful and overwhelming for seniors,” Marjee said. “I just try to help them understand the decisions that have been made and to get them through the maze of information.”
Zina Zimmerman, a member of the SNAP Outreach team, spent ten years as Design Director for Tavern on the Green. Born in Brooklyn, she has done volunteer work for her entire adult life, and was thrilled to find in ReServe an opportunity to continue to give back after she stopped working full-time.
Zina agrees with CSCS staff and fellow ReServists that patience and empathy are prerequisites for helping seniors navigate the SNAP application process.
“We treat each client with courtesy and grace,” she said. “We hold their hands and chat, and listen to stories about their grandchildren and broken elevators.”
In one instance an 85-year-old client was unable to return a questionnaire because the elevator in her building was in fact broken, and she could not get to her mailbox. Her benefits were terminated. In another, a client lost benefits because her Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card had been issued with a wrong number.
In both cases Zina was able to get SNAP benefits restored. She’ll always remember the satisfaction of helping these individuals and peers gain access to something as basic as food.
“No one should be hungry,” Zina said.