WASHINGTON -- Some American seniors will be able to use food stamp benefits to have groceries delivered to their homes under a new initiative the government announced this week.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is seeking as many as 20 nonprofits to participate in a pilot project involving grocery deliveries for homebound seniors and people with disabilities. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Huffington Post that the program, intended to last a year, could reach as many as 1 million people.
"If we’re concerned about the survival of Medicare, or we want to keep people out of nursing homes as long as we possibly can because we want to save that expense on Medicaid, this is a program effort that potentially pays for itself," Vilsack said.
Studies have shown that programs like Meals on Wheels that deliver daily meals to low-income senior citizens can have psychological and health benefits beyond basic nutrition -- and can even help seniors live independently for longer. Such programs can also help the government save money by reducing spending on nursing homes.
About 46 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, which are distributed on debit cards that for the most part can only be used to buy food items in a supermarket, grocery store or convenience store.
Senior citizens who are eligible for SNAP are much less likely to receive benefits than the general population. Only 42 percent of eligible seniors sign up for SNAP benefits, compared with 83 percent of the general eligible population, according to the Agriculture Department.
There are a number of reasons why eligible seniors may choose not to apply for SNAP, said Vilsack. They may see the paperwork as a hassle, or find the prospect of going to the store too daunting. Some seniors might even choose not to apply simply because they don't want to burden the government.
He said some people change their minds "when we point out it’s in our collective long-term interest for people to have access to nutritious food, especially senior citizens."
Such access, Vilsack said, "will result in [seniors] having fewer health issues and therefore less health expense, which obviously takes pressure off the Medicare budget and the Medicaid budget, and it may help them avoid having to go into a nursing home sooner than they would like."
About 9 percent of SNAP recipients are senior citizens, according to the most recent data from the Agriculture Department.