New York City, NY

Older New Yorkers hit hard by the end of emergency SNAP benefits: “People are vaccinated, but people ain’t eating.”

Photo byJosephine Stratman

On the same day that more than 1.5 million New Yorkers' access to emergency food assistance was terminated, a sizable line developed in front of a neighbourhood food bank in Harlem. Most of the people waiting were elderly, some using walkers and canes. They waited, shifting their weight from foot to foot. A folding chair was brought out by one older man.

Hector Castro moved to the back of the line. He is one of thousands of elderly people in New York City whose SNAP benefits were reduced earlier this week. Castro, 84, and his wife make ends meet in East Harlem on a fixed social security pension. His food budget has been drastically reduced by the shift. Although he enjoys eating fresh fruit, he is unsure whether he can currently afford it.

Castro remarked, "We'll need to store food in other ways, eat less meat, and purchase cheaper products." I try to eat well-balanced meals every day, but it will be challenging. Fruit is hard to find these days because it's expensive.

Low-income seniors in the city run the risk of going hungry on Wednesday as emergency SNAP allocations come to an end.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reduction represents a return to the pre-pandemic allowance. It was always intended for the federal emergency allocation scheme to be short-lived.

The elderly are among New York's most vulnerable citizens, yet advocates and low-income seniors argue that they are not prepared for the transition.

Prior to Wednesday, participants received their maximum benefits, which for seniors living alone was $281 per month. Sometimes, that amount will be reduced to merely $23 per month. This move has a significant effect on people with fixed incomes.

The director of senior services at the nonprofit BronxWorks, Maria Rivera, noted an increase in the number of people who are becoming anxious about their ability to eat. Seniors living in poverty in New York City were severely affected by the pandemic. The majority of COVID deaths—roughly 75%—have involved seniors. They have had the most job losses of any demographic. They frequently have unpredictable finances, are vulnerable to health problems, and can't shop or prepare meals for themselves. The cuts feel like yet another blow, and the exorbitant cost of groceries has not decreased. The SNAP boost helped Castro eat consistently and stock his fridge with fresh produce, fruits, and cuts of red meat. Now, those items may be out of reach. He uses a walker to get around and receives about $700 a month on his fixed income. Already, inflation has forced him to swap favourite foods like steak and fish for slabs of bread and butter or an egg. He regularly visits the NY Common Pantry in East Harlem to receive staples like produce and dairy products. If he can’t afford food after the SNAP change, Castro said he’ll hobble to different pantries, trekking further from his home to feed himself. "It’s scary. It’s scary for us as a provider, and I can’t imagine how scary it is for older New Yorkers, for older people who are faced with not knowing where their next meal may be coming from," said Beth Shapiro, the CEO of Citymeals on Wheels. "This is just creating a very challenging and scary time for the most vulnerable people in the city, the people who built this city for us." Food prices are still high. The pandemic appears to be over for many, but not for William Page. "They talked about this being for the pandemic. As far as prices are concerned, the pandemic is still on," said William Page, a senior who receives SNAP benefits. "Maybe people are vaccinated, but people ain’t eating." The programme is a lifeline for millions of New Yorkers without a reliable food source and at risk of going hungry. By putting money on a prepaid card every month, SNAP aims to alleviate the problem by giving extra help to shops. Many seniors are worried they won’t be able to stock basic grocery items like eggs, milk, and produce. Even as inflation cools, food prices are still climbing. They rose 10% last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. They’re expected to rise another 8% this year. With prices still high, many worry about low-income seniors and those in poor physical or mental health. The cuts may put them at a greater risk of skipping meals or eating junk food. For the past three years, Page, 74, has received the maximum amount of $281 in SNAP funds every month. Now, he’ll receive about $100 less. He’s really disappointed in the change; he hoped it might continue for longer. "It’s going to be hard," Page, a retired security guard, said. "It’s gonna be harder… " It’s an extra burden." The cuts will impact his everyday life. His only income is from social security disability checks every month. With the extra SNAP funds, he buys red meat and fish, eats eggs for breakfast, and sometimes treats himself to sweets. Without those funds, he won’t be able to. Instead, he’ll go for Wheaties cereal and visit food pantries more often to pick up expensive essentials like milk and produce. He thinks maybe he’ll start buying canned meat, but worries that it’s less healthy. He’ll skip meals if he needs to. Page has limited mobility and is able to go to his local senior center, the Food Bank Community Center in Harlem, a couple of times every week. There, he picks up lunch and socialises with the other regulars. He’s been going for ten years, so he knows pretty much everyone. When he’s there, he brings a bag to pack leftovers to eat for dinner. After multiple surgeries in the past few years, he has trouble walking. That makes grocery shopping difficult. "The older you get, the more the body starts deteriorating; with some people like me... It’s hard for me to stand up and walk," he said. Not having consistent access to food can lead to a higher chance of developing serious health issues and higher health care costs. With the cuts, many will face impossible choices. Insulin or food? Medical bills or groceries? Trek to pantries further from home, risking exhaustion and even injury, to get more food? "Your medicines work better when you work appropriately when you’re nourished," Beth Shapiro of Citymeals on Wheels said. "This is putting people in a situation where they will not have enough food to meet their daily requirements." "High costs of food are going to make [them stretch] their dollars even further," Shapiro said. "And there are older people who are managing chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and it’s impossible without the ability to purchase healthy foods. The SNAP allotments gave older adults more ability to stretch their dollars to include healthier food to support their health and well-being." As seniors start to feel the impact of the change, food pantries and senior centres are bracing themselves for a surge of need. Some seniors may be forced to return to the centres out of necessity. Many of them have been reluctant to return, but they might be forced to do so in order to receive their meals, according to Rivera. "They have been hesitant to return because they fear becoming ill. Some of them will subsequently be forced to return home since they can now afford to eat three meals per day at home. While New York hasn't given any indication that it plans to extend the programme, some states, like New Jersey, are attempting to do so.

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