Food is a basic need that more than 100,000 San Francisco residents struggle to afford. (Courtesy photo)

Food subsidies provide a vital lifeline for vulnerable seniors

By Dr. Hilary Seligman and Melissa Cannon

Millions of Californians will meet at the dinner table this week for Thanksgiving. For about 7 percent of San Francisco’s residents, CalFresh will help buy their meal.

Food is a basic need that more than 100,000 of our city’s residents struggle to afford. CalFresh helps by providing money for food purchases on a debit card. At less than two dollars per meal, the benefits are extremely modest, but they go a long way in helping avoid hunger.

This holiday season, about 19,000 San Francisco residents are newly enrolled in CalFresh. A decades-old rule was eliminated this summer. This rule had prevented recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) from participating in CalFresh. Once removed, the San Francisco’s Human Services Agency and its scores of eligibility workers, in collaboration with numerous community partners, worked hard to support low-income older adults in applying for benefits. For many, their new eligibility couldn’t come soon enough. For this, we can be thankful.

Hunger among older adults is a growing problem in San Francisco. Almost a third of older adults cannot afford to make ends meet, lacking sufficient income to pay for the basic needs of housing, health care, and food. Lack of money for food, and nutritious food in particular, can contribute to poorer health and higher health care costs. In fact, one of these authors recently showed that food insecurity is associated with more than $204 million in excess health care costs annually in San Francisco alone. Meanwhile, research suggests people enrolled in CalFresh spend about $1400 less in health care costs annually compared to similar people not enrolled.

By 2035, the number of older adults is expected to grow from 19 percent to more than a quarter of all Californians. If the federal administration has its way, the divide between the haves and the have nots will continue to widen, and older adults will be among the most vulnerable.

The Trump Administration is proposing three new rules to weaken the capacity of CalFresh (known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) to lift households out of poverty. According to the administration’s own impact analysis, proposed changes would have an outsized negative impact on older adults and people with disabilities. Together, these new rules would reduce benefits for more than a million Californians.

While the Trump Administration has been advancing a number of harmful policies that would take California backwards, Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking important steps forward for our aging population. Newsom has called for a Master Plan for Aging to help identify opportunities to better prepare the state for the major population change headed its way.

California can take immediate action to support the food needs of older adults. We can break down hurdles that older adults face in applying for CalFresh benefits. California currently ranks last in the nation in enrolling eligible older adults. We must change the systems and processes that make enrollment in CalFresh so difficult for this population. Otherwise, we will struggle to enroll the growing number of older adults who will soon find themselves in need of assistance.

In San Francisco, high housing costs mean many older adults have no money for food, even though their monthly incomes are too high to qualify for CalFresh. This leaves many older adults struggling to put food on the table and without a long-term safety net. This year, in recognition of this growing problem, Governor Newsom increased annual spending for the Senior Nutrition Program by $17.5 million. But these funds expire in 2021, far before California will see the full impact of the aging boom.

Although California is making significant progress in increasing access to food for older adults, these strategies are not sufficient to meet the needs of California’s rapidly growing older adult population. We must build upon the programs and solutions that we know work, and leave room for innovation to test new strategies that might better meet the diverse needs of our aging population. We need these changes now.

This holiday season, let us give thanks for the food on our own tables. Then, when bellies are full, consider supporting older adults in our community in getting the food that they need. The administration is seeking public comments on the proposed changes to SNAP until Dec. 2. Register your disapproval at http://bit.ly/SNAP-utilities.

Hilary Seligman is a physician at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center and an associate professor at UC San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations. Opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect official positions of these institutions. Melissa Cannon is senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.

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