As costs rise, more seniors struggle with food insecurity

Rebecca R. Ammons

Sandy Osborn and Sheldon Collins prepare Meals on Wheels meals in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Selma Walser packs on a Meals on Wheels meal on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Volunteers pick up Meals on Wheels meals for delivery in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Selma Walser (right) and Carolyn Dancey pack Meals on Wheels meals in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Selma Walser (left) and Carolyn Dancey pack Meals on Wheels meals in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Volunteers pick up Meals on Wheels meals for delivery in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Record-breaking inflation has been felt by many this summer, but rising costs — coupled with lagging government income support — have been felt acutely by retirees and near-retirees who live on fixed incomes.

“Without question, low-income older Iowans — especially those on fixed income — are struggling,” said Brad Anderson, AARP Iowa state director. “Anyone who’s been to a grocery story or gas station knows why.”

It’s estimated a third of Iowans who receive Social Security benefits rely on those checks for 90 percent of their monthly expenses, Anderson said. And with a dollar today covering less than a year ago, more residents aged 65 and older are struggling to afford their regular trips to the grocery store.

In addition, challenges from rising costs has been amplified, advocates say, after food assistance from the state recently returned to pre-pandemic levels. These benefits are “critically important” to prevent food insecurity for those over the age of 50, Anderson said.

“Once we saw (that) those SNAP benefits went away, there was an immediate spike in food pantry usage,” Anderson said. “When you can immediately tie a result in policy to a spike in food pantry usage, that’s a concern.”

Losing extra SNAP creates a ‘double whammy’

On April 1, Iowa ended its participation a federal emergency allotment provision that allowed households to receive the maximum benefit available under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps.

Almost overnight, average benefits for the more than 142,000 households enrolled statewide dropped more than $200 per household, according to data available from the Iowa Department of Human Services. In March, the average benefit was $485, but the following month, that average benefit fell to $279.

In May, the overall average benefit per household was $281, according to preliminary data from DHS. That’s a 39 percent decrease compared to the year before.

“It was a huge double whammy,” said Ann Neville, a case manager at the Heritage Area Agency on Aging. “Not only is inflation making the cost of groceries and gas higher, but they also got reduced benefits.”

Iowa food pantries prepare for greater need as increased SNAP benefits end

Most of Neville’s clients in the east-central region of the state receive less than $2,000 per month in Social Security benefits, a large portion of which goes to cover housing expenses.

With their limited income, Neville’s clients tell her they now are unable to purchase items such as milk and eggs, or afford gas for their cars. In the worse cases, some are choosing to go without enough food, Neville said.

“Unfortunately some turn to payday loans, or they just don’t eat,” she said.-

Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week to explore aging in Iowa

Iowa Ideas will host a free, virtual In-Depth Week series, “Aging in Iowa,” July 18-22. As the number of Iowans aged 65 and older continues to grow, panels will explore key issues and critical resources required to ensure this demographic is safe, secure and thriving in Iowa.

Full session descriptions, including a list of panelists, and registration can be found at iowaideas.com. Here is the week’s schedule:

Monday, July 18 — Aging in Iowa overview

Tuesday, July 19 — Building stronger Home Community Based Services

Wednesday, July 20 — Long-term care

Thursday, July 21 — Making the home work to age in place

Friday, July 22 — Seniors in poverty

Advocates predicted new demand for food assistance

Beginning in March and into April, the Cedar Rapids-based not-for-profit Horizons began to see an increase in new clients seeking services.

Horizons operates Meals on Wheels in Linn and Johnson counties, which provides meals to older adults and individuals with disabilities.

Melissa Wahl, Horizons director of community health and nutrition, said most of these new clients needed assistance obtaining food because they had lost the safety net that SNAP had provided each month.

“With the end of the extended SNAP benefits, they needed help,” she said.

In March, the program reported a total of 750 unique individual clients. In April — the month extended SNAP benefits ended — client totals increased to 762.

By May, that number reached 814 unique clients.

By comparison, in July 2021 clients totaled 706, Wahl said.

The food bank at CommUnity Crisis Services in Iowa City reports similar increases. From July 2021 to June 2022, the organization saw a 60 percent rise in number of individuals aged 55 and older requesting food deliveries, said Krystal Kabela, food bank manager.

The increase in new clients at food assistance agencies statewide was not unexpected. Many local food banks were increasing stock ahead of the April 1 deadline, anticipating an influx in new clients.

However, despite their preparations, some officials are worried about their agency’s ability to keep up.

Horizons has considered establishing a waiting list for clients for the first time, should costs outpace its current funding, Chief Executive Officer Mike Barnhart said.

“We’re in the business of feeding people, but at some point — I can’t tell when — we might have to start a wait-list,” he said.

Some experts have said relief is coming.

The nonpartisan senior group Senior Citizens League, based in Alexandria, Va., estimates the cost-of-living adjustment for the average monthly Social Security benefit will be 10.5 percent for 2023. According to the group, that would amount to an increase of $175.10, to an average $1,668 monthly benefit.

By comparison, the cost-of-living adjustment for 2022 was 5.9 percent — the highest increase seen in roughly 40 years.

But in the meantime, case workers such as Neville are trying to connect their clients with more resources. Even with SNAP benefits returned to previous levels, any additional funding helps, Neville said.

AARP also is emphasizing the importance of these benefits. Anderson said fewer than half of older Iowans who qualify for SNAP have signed up for the program.

“We’re grateful food pantries are there, but we need to do everything we can to help get those eligible for SNAP to do so,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; [email protected]

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