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Food program aids seniors

Toledo Area Ministries links the needy with benefits

Carl-Smarage

Carl Smarage, 67, is able to buy extra food as a result of an outreach program that seeks to increase the use of supplemental assistance such as food stamps among the area’s senior citizens.

The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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For 67-year-old Carl Smarage, who is living on a limited Social Security income, every dollar counts.

So last year, the East Toledoan called Toledo Area Ministries seeking information about food pantries where he could get assistance.

"The next thing you know, I'm eligible for food stamps and some medical assistance for my medications," he said.

Mr. Smarage now receives $58 in food stamps monthly.

"That $58 allows me to buy some things I wouldn't normally buy," he said. On Thursday, Mr. Smarage, a retiree, stocked up on such basics as noodles, eggs, and margarine using his food assistance.

Toledo Area Ministries was one of six agencies nationally to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2009 for a pilot program to increase food-stamp outreach among senior citizens.

The agency hopes the techniques it is using can serve as a national model for other groups.

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Nationally, just 34 percent of eligible individuals age 60 and older received food-stamp benefits in federal fiscal year 2009, according to the Agriculture Department, which administers the program.

"We saw an opportunity to really make an impact in Lucas County," said Jim Brenizer, Toledo Area Ministries' director of meeting human need.

Seniors often don't have accurate information about the program, may be concerned about the application process, or believe others, such as families with young children, are more in need of assistance than themselves.

Toledo Area Ministries, which runs more than a dozen area food pantries, had surveyed its pantry clients and found, in line with national trends, that many seniors who were eligible for food stamps were not receiving them.

The organization's $500,000 grant is used to help screen potentially eligible seniors and help the clients fill out applications. Other pilot programs funded by the Ag Department targeted the elderly in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"A lot of [seniors] … are used to being very frugal and are not looking for anything they see as a handout," said Justin Moor, vice president of planning and program development at the Area Office on Aging, which is helping connect some of the seniors it serves to Toledo Area Ministries.

Kathy Keller, a spokesman for AARP Ohio, said food stamps, now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, can be a help to seniors on limited incomes. "It can really be important in many ways," Ms. Keller said.

Education for these seniors is critical, she said, such as letting them know the benefits are loaded onto an electronic card that looks similar to a debit card and are not actually stamps.

In Lucas County, the number of people over age 60 receiving food assistance has increased in recent years, as it has for all age groups. In 2009, 4,915 Lucas County residents were using food assistance, and about 7,200 are using them now, according to the county's Job and Family Services office.

Anna Bolden, another senior who has taken advantage of the program, said the $16 she receives each month is helpful.

"That's enough to buy a gallon of milk and a packet of meat," said the retiree. "It has made a difference, it really has."

For more information, call Toledo Area Ministries at 419-242-7401.

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.

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