Like thousands of other older people in Erie County, Davis Feaster signed up for the federal food stamp benefit since the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. Most have not been as desperate as Feaster.
“Right now, I don’t have food,” the 78-year-old Feaster said one day last week outside an East Side supermarket. “I’m cashing in my bottles to get food.”
Households with people 60 years of age or older have become the fastest-growing segment of food stamp recipients in Erie County, with the number soaring 61 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to a Buffalo News analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
While demand for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, has leveled off in recent years locally for families with children, households with seniors maintained a double-digit increase between 2010 and 2012, The News analysis found.
For Feaster, that means $90 in benefits each month to help buy the noodles, potatoes and meat he likes to eat, while his Social Security benefit covers his other living costs.
So every other day, the widowed, retired plant worker carries his trash bag full of pop cans and water bottles into the supermarket on Jefferson Avenue to cash them in for a couple of dollars.
Feaster said he registered for food stamp assistance six years ago.
But it’s not just in poor city neighborhoods that food benefits have increased.
In the suburbs as well as in Buffalo, in middle-class and poor neighborhoods, more older residents are relying on the federal program.
The extent of the increase varies among neighborhoods, but the federal figures show it is widespread.
Two-thirds of census tracts in Buffalo’s suburbs show a greater number of 60-and-over households receiving food stamps since 2008, according to Census Bureau’s survey data.
In fact, the additional senior households receiving food stamps in the suburbs outnumbered those added in Buffalo by a few hundred cases, according to The News’ analysis of seven years of Census Bureau sampling through 2012.
What’s more, many of the areas with the most significant gains are in the suburbs. Two dozen census tracts showed increases of 50 to 114 cases of 60-and-over households receiving food stamps. Ten are in the suburbs, including the towns of Tonawanda, West Seneca, Hamburg and Cheektowaga.
Food stamp use has increased in middle-class neighborhoods, too.
While overall use of food stamps remains lower in higher income areas, the number of households receiving food stamps increased by 29 percent in areas with the lowest poverty rates. High-poverty neighborhoods saw a 16 percent increase, according to the Census Bureau estimates.
For all types of Erie County households – for the elderly, those with children and everyone else – food stamp use went up by 35 percent between 2008 and 2012, with most of the increase coming before 2010.
Signing up recipients
The increase isn’t solely attributed to more older people in economic trouble. Some have been there for a while.
“We have found that in some areas, up to 72 percent of older adults who were eligible were not receiving SNAP,” said Christine Deska, assistant state director for AARP.
The organization led a coordinated outreach effort between 2008 and 2012 that helped add nearly 7,000 people age 60 and over to the food stamp rolls in Erie County. That number still represents a fraction of the eligible seniors, according to state advocates with AARP.
“A lot of outreach is being done to break down the stigma – that’s the biggest barrier, along with the challenging application process,” Deska said.
Going through that process can be uncomfortable, even for older people who otherwise will go hungry. Many seniors feel the application questions about their households are too personal or too intrusive, according to the nonprofit group Feeding America.
Older adults also may believe they aren’t eligible for the food assistance because they own their house or a car, Deska said, but that isn’t the case. Their incomes can be as high as 200 percent of the official poverty level (equal to $23,400), and that amount is calculated after deductions for basic living expenses and – this is a big one for many – medical expenses, including medications.
“That can make all the difference in getting higher SNAP benefits,” Deska said.
“There are so many seniors who are on a fixed income, who are seeing their expenses go up while their income stays the same,” Deska said. “And at the end of the month, they don’t have enough money left. There are a lot of issues tied to food insecurity – depression, diabetes. I’ve heard of people cutting their prescription pills in half to make them last longer so they can afford to buy food.”
Willie Hailey of Buffalo knows about making choices to stretch her limited income. Her grown children help her with groceries, and she sometimes gets meals at a nearby soup kitchen.
“At the end of the month, you decide who you can pay,” Hailey said. “Sometimes I’ll pay either my light bill or my gas bill.”
While there has been a sharp increase in older residents receiving food stamps, those at the other end of the age spectrum appear to be in greatest in need of food.
Nearly one of every four households with children in Erie County receives food stamps. That compares with 11.3 percent of senior households.
There has been a slight decrease – 64 – in the number of cases of households with children between 2010 and 2012. But the decline doesn’t offer solace to families receiving the food stamp benefit.
Erika Reid, 31, lives in a duplex in the Town of Tonawanda, with a son, 12, and a daughter, 9. She would like more from the program.
Reid, formerly a medical technician at Kenmore Mercy Hospital and a manager of a Tim Hortons shop, was hit by a drunken driver in 2002. She lost her job after several surgeries and began receiving the food stamp benefit in 2006.
She receives $300 on the 9th of each month.
By the end of the month, the benefit runs out and she usually spends another $200 for food.
“I can’t make it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the 23rd of the month, and I have nothing.”
Rene Bernas, 28, lives with her boyfriend and three sons, ages 9, 5 and 2, in an apartment complex near the Sheridan Park Community Center in Tonawanda. She is expecting another child.
Bernas receives $541 a month. Before SNAP benefit cuts made in the Farm Act of 2014 went into effect, she received $600. She feeds her children breakfast and dinner, and sends them to the community center in the summer for free lunches. They get free lunches at school during the school year.
“It’s not enough,” she said. “I still got to go to the pantry at St. Vincent DePaul’s at the end of the month.”
The food pantry at St. Vincent DePaul’s provides pre-bagged groceries, including canned goods and sometimes fish, for its clients.
Most local food pantries have seen an increase in the number of clients in recent months, partly because laid-off workers are seeing unemployment benefits run out, partly because of the Farm Act’s cuts to SNAP and partly “just because.” More and more, people have jobs and still need help.
“It seems like, especially in Western New York, there are so many people who are just not making enough money,” said Michael Mann, a Food Bank of Western New York board member.
Need for food
Those at the Buffalo Dream Center know about the conditions that can make meals hit or miss for families. Unemployment. Poor health. Mental illness.
That’s why its mobile food pantry heads out six times a month to deliver food. One place it parks is on Lafayette Avenue at Barton Street on Buffalo’s West Side, where dozens of people line up for a bag or two of groceries – fruit juice, canned vegetables, some cookies that a bakery donated.
It is not a happy situation to be in – waiting on a street corner for food, but the recipients are grateful for the help. Pastor Eric Johns of the Dream Center said that at one point, he wondered if the mobile food pantry filled a genuine need in the city, or if those who lined up for food perhaps just liked to get something for free.
“Then one day last winter, one of those awful, really cold days around the blizzard,” Johns said, “we pulled up to the corner and there already were people lined up. We served 80 families that day. They needed that food.”
The Food Bank of WNY reports that more than 36,000 families are served by its member agencies in the state’s four westernmost counties, with close to 40 percent of those families with children, and more than a third in poor health. They and others often also are burdened with medical bills.
The SNAP cuts passed in the Farm Act – $8.6 billion over 10 years – didn’t help, although New York and several other states are using a loophole in the law to stem some of the losses.
The act allows extra SNAP payments to people enrolled in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps people pay their utility bills.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced soon after the Farm Act was passed that New York would adjust its HEAP payments – another $6 million in federal funds – so more people would qualify for the “heat and eat” program, keeping $457 million in food benefits in the state, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
Cuomo also formed an Anti-Hunger Task Force in December 2013, aimed at eliminating hunger in the state, where it is estimated 1 million children and 7 percent of seniors live in households where having food on the table is not a normal part of daily life but instead is a daily struggle.