Key Takeaways

  • Approximately three out of five older adults who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are passing up valuable benefits—an estimated 5 million people.

  • There are several myths about SNAP that may keep some seniors from taking advantage of this vital safety net program.

  • Applying for SNAP benefits is easier than you might think. Our screening tool can help you check your eligibility and start the application process.

Food insecurity and poor nutrition are a serious problem among older adults. In 2020, 1.28 million adults aged 65 or older living alone were food insecure.1 Yet despite the fact so many seniors struggle to put food on their table, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is very low. Approximately three out of five older adults who qualify for SNAP are passing up valuable benefits—an estimated 5 million people.2

What is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?

As the largest hunger safety net program in the U.S., SNAP helps more than 4 million older adults buy the food they need to stay healthy, active, and independent. For some, the monthly financial aid SNAP provides can mean the difference between going hungry and enjoying nourishing meals without worry.

Why don’t more older adults use SNAP?

There are several misconceptions that may keep seniors from taking advantage of SNAP assistance. Below are the five most common myths about SNAP—along with the hard facts that debunk these myths.

Myth: SNAP is only for families with children.

Fact: SNAP is for everyone.

This federal program is open to all households that meet eligibility requirements, including those with older adults. After all, eating healthy isn’t just important when we’re young. As we age, our nutritional needs change. Having regular access to healthy food helps older adults prevent and manage chronic conditions, improve their resistance to illness, maintain strong bones, and lower their risk of falls. SNAP assistance also leaves seniors with more money in their budget to put toward medications, medical care, and other health-promoting activities. One study found that SNAP participation may help older adults with diabetes stick to their treatment regimens.

What can SNAP benefits be used for? Instead of having to buy less expensive “junk” foods and processed foods, older adults can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, milk, yogurt, bread, and other wholesome foods. SNAP assistance can also be used to buy seeds and plants to grow food for a household.

Myth: SNAP is not worth applying for because it only offers $20 a month in benefits.

Fact: The average SNAP benefit for a senior living alone is $104 per month, reflecting a recent, historic SNAP increase designed to keep benefits in step with rising food costs.  

SNAP works to reduce hunger, but the program has not kept up with rising food costs. This permanent increase to SNAP benefits will play a role in reducing food insecurity and skipped meals among older adults.

The $20 figure that's often discussed only represents the minimum monthly benefit you can receive. Approximately 80% of older adults receive more than that amount.

In addition, SNAP benefits don’t need to be used the same month they’re obtained. You can let your benefits accrue for a certain period, which means that a modest benefit amount can add up to something substantial over time.

Finally, if you spend more than $35 a month on out-of-pocket medical costs, you may be able to deduct that from your gross income when applying for SNAP. This excess medical expense deduction can result in a higher monthly benefit payment.

Myth: Applying for SNAP assistance will take food benefits away from others who need it.

Fact: An older adult who receives SNAP assistance is not taking food or money away from other households.

Everyone who is eligible for SNAP and enrolls in the program will receive help.

Myth: Not many stores accept SNAP.

Fact: There are approximately 248,000 food retailers nationwide that participate in this program.

So, chances are you’ll find plenty of places nearby where you can use your benefits. Some stores even allow you to use your SNAP benefits online. Your SNAP EBT card can be used in most grocery stores and other retail stores that sell food, including convenience stores. Many farmer’s markets across the country also participate in SNAP.

Redeeming your SNAP dollars is easy. Each month, your benefits are loaded onto an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card that you swipe at the checkout terminal just like a credit card or debit card. As long as you have sufficient funds in your EBT card balance, you can use it to cover eligible grocery purchases.

Myth: Applying for SNAP is too difficult.

Fact: It’s not as hard as you might think—and you can get help navigating the application process.

Depending on the state in which you live, you may apply for SNAP online, by mail, or in person. You’ll be asked for some basic information such as the size of your household, your annual income, and any assets you have (e.g., cash, property, etc.). Rest assured that any personal information you provide is strictly confidential.

It can take up to 30 days to process your SNAP application. In some cases, your local SNAP office may contact you to ask you additional questions before they make a final decision regarding benefits. If you qualify for the program, you’ll receive an approval letter that explains your benefit amount, when your benefits will begin, and how long your monthly SNAP benefits will last.

Finding out about your SNAP eligibility is fast and easy with NCOA’s online screening tool. Just visit BenefitsCheckUp.org and select your state of residence. If you are eligible, we’ll tell how to apply. You can apply for SNAP on your own—or find someone to walk you through the application process step by step.

You have nothing to lose by checking your SNAP eligibility. Just ask Tom, aged 60. After losing his self-employment income due to pandemic shutdowns, Tom was facing economic uncertainty. Although he'd heard of SNAP, he thought the application process would be too complicated. A local Benefits Enrollment Center helped Tom complete his application, and he was approved for benefits.

"I can now grocery shop for the healthy foods I want," he told NCOA.

Download (and share) the PDF infographic below for some fast facts about SNAP and how it can benefit you.

Sources

1. Household Food Security in the United States in 2020, U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Economic Research Service (September 2021). Found on the internet at https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/102076/err-298.pdf?v=1869.

2. SNAP Participation Lags Among Eligible Seniors in Every State, Putting Them at Greater Risk of Hunger, Food Research & Action Center (March 22, 2019). Found on the internet at https://frac.org/news/snap-participation-lags-among-eligible-seniors-in-every-state-putting-them-at-greater-risk-of-hunger.