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As costs rise, more seniors face food insecurity

On Friday, Sandy Osborn and Sheldon Collins cook meals on wheels in Cedar Rapids. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Selma Walser is preparing a meals-on-wheels meal on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Volunteers pick up Meals on Wheels meals for delivery to Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Selma Walser (right) and Carolyn Dancey pack Meals on Wheels meals in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Selma Walser (left) and Carolyn Dancey pack Meals on Wheels meals in Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Volunteers pick up Meals on Wheels meals for delivery to Cedar Rapids on Friday. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Record inflation has been felt by many this summer, but rising costs — coupled with lagging government income support — have been keenly felt by retirees and near-retirees living on fixed incomes.

“Without a doubt, low-income seniors in Iowa — especially those on fixed incomes — are struggling,” said AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson. “Anyone who’s been to a grocery store or gas station knows why.”

An estimated one-third of Iowans who receive Social Security benefits depend on those checks for 90% of their monthly expenses, Anderson said. And with a dollar today covering less than a year ago, more residents aged 65 and over are struggling to pay for their regular trips to the grocery store.

In addition, the challenges of rising costs have been magnified, advocates say, after state food aid recently returned to pre-pandemic levels. These benefits are “crucially important” in preventing food insecurity for people over 50, Anderson said.

“Once we saw (that) those SNAP benefits disappeared, there was an immediate increase in pantry usage,” Anderson said. “When you can immediately tie an outcome of a policy to a spike in pantry usage, that’s a concern.”

Losing additional SNAP creates a “double whammy”

On April 1, Iowa ended its participation in a federal Emergency Allowance provision that allowed households to receive the maximum benefits available under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps.

Almost overnight, average benefits for the more than 142,000 registered households statewide dropped by more than $200 per household, according to data available from the Iowa Department of Social Services. In March, the average benefit was $485, but the following month that average benefit fell to $279.

In May, the overall average benefit per household was $281, according to preliminary data from DHS. This is a decrease of 39% compared to the previous year.

“It was a huge double whammy,” said Ann Neville, case manager at the Heritage Area Agency on Aging. “Not only is inflation driving up the cost of groceries and gasoline, but they’ve also gotten reduced benefits.”

Iowa food pantries prepare for greater need as increased SNAP benefits end

Most of Neville’s clients in the mid-east region of the state receive less than $2,000 a month in Social Security benefits, much of which goes to cover housing costs.

With their limited income, Neville’s customers tell him that they are now unable to buy items such as milk and eggs, or buy gasoline for their cars. In the worst cases, some choose not to eat enough, Neville said.

“Unfortunately, some are turning to payday loans, or they’re just not eating,” she said.

Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week to explore aging in Iowa

Iowa Ideas will host a free, virtual series of in-depth weeks, “Aging in Iowa,” July 18-22. As the number of Iowans age 65 and older continues to grow, panels will explore key issues and critical resources needed to ensure this demographic is safe, secure, and prosperous in Iowa.

Full session descriptions, including a list of panelists and registration can be found at iowaideas.com. Here is the schedule for the week:

Monday, July 18 — Snapshot of Aging in Iowa

Tuesday, July 19 — Strengthening community services at home

Wednesday, July 20 — Long-Term Care

Thursday, July 21 — Making the home work to age in place

Friday, July 22 — Seniors living in poverty

Supporters predicted a new demand for food aid

Starting in March and running through April, Horizons, a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit, began to see an increase in new clients seeking services.

Horizons operates Meals on Wheels in Linn and Johnson counties, which provides meals to seniors and people with disabilities.

Melissa Wahl, director of community health and nutrition for Horizons, said most of these new clients needed help getting food because they had lost the safety net that SNAP had provided them with each month. .

“With SNAP’s extended benefits ending, they needed help,” she said.

In March, the program reported a total of 750 unique individual clients. In April – the extended month of SNAP benefits ended – the total number of clients rose to 762.

In May, this number reached 814 unique customers.

By comparison, in July 2021, customers numbered 706, Wahl said.

The CommUnity Crisis Services food bank in Iowa City is reporting similar increases. From July 2021 to June 2022, the organization saw a 60% increase in the number of people aged 55 and over requesting food deliveries, said food bank manager Krystal Kabela.

The increase in new clients at food aid agencies across the state was not unexpected. Many local food banks were increasing their inventory ahead of the April 1 deadline, anticipating an influx of new customers.

However, despite their preparations, some officials worry about their agency’s ability to keep up.

Horizons has considered establishing a waitlist for first-time customers, should costs exceed its current funding, chief executive Mike Barnhart said.

“We’re busy feeding people, but at some point – I can’t say when – we may have to create a waiting list,” he said.

Some experts have said relief is coming.

The nonpartisan group Senior Citizens League, based in Alexandria, Va., estimates that the cost-of-living adjustment for the average monthly Social Security benefit will be 10.5% for 2023. According to the group, this would represent an increase of $175.10. , at an average monthly benefit of $1,668.

By comparison, the cost of living adjustment for 2022 was 5.9%, the largest increase seen in about 40 years.

But in the meantime, social workers like Neville are trying to connect their clients with more resources. Even with SNAP benefits returning to previous levels, any additional funding helps, Neville said.

AARP also emphasizes the importance of these benefits. Anderson said less than half of Iowa seniors who qualify for SNAP have enrolled in the program.

“We’re grateful the pantries are here, but we need to do everything we can to help those who are eligible for SNAP to do so,” he said.

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