ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — With a photo exhibit on display at the JCC MetroWest through Dec. 21, the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, in conjunction with several other agencies working to end food insecurity, is putting a face to the state’s elderly and disabled population without the means to afford food this holiday season.
“NJ Soul of Hunger: The Hidden Reality of Hunger Among Seniors and the Disabled,” which was funded through a grant from the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, consists of photos illustrating the daily struggles that the 200,000 New Jersey senior citizens below the poverty line face. The photos have been taken by the seniors themselves or their caregivers, and the exhibit is the latest in a series by the coalition in its effort to raise awareness for the food insecure residents of New Jersey, particularly those often overlooked. Past projects have focused on the impact of Atlantic City casino closures, the lasting effect of Superstorm Sandy and the lives of children suffering from hunger.
And while photography may seem like an unlikely method for fighting hunger, Lisa Pitz, the coalition’s program director of advocacy, outreach and education, said it can actually be very effective in showing people the reality of the food insecurity that is around them.
“A picture speaks a thousand words,” Pitz said in a Dec. 10 phone interview. “So often people hear the statistics, but each one of those numbers represents a human being. And the photos really allow people to hear the stories firsthand from people who experience hunger and food insecurity and see that hunger impacts people from every walk of life in every part of our state.”
Pitz said the coalition particularly wanted to give people a glimpse of how hunger affects the elderly and disabled because many people do not realize what this group goes through. According to the National Council on Aging, more than 4 million low-income adults older than 60 participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP, formerly known as the federal food stamp program — but that does not nearly cover those who need it. In fact, NCOA statistics show that 3 in 5 eligible seniors do not participate in the program, which is more than any other age group.
That means 5.2 million elderly people are not getting the benefits they deserve.
This is certainly a problem in New Jersey, where the NJ Foundation for Aging reports that Social Security is the sole means of support for 30 percent of the senior population despite the fact that the average Social Security income per year is only $15,191 for women and $19,393 for men. USDA Food and Nutrition Service data shows 13 percent of the state’s elderly receive SNAP benefits, but Pitz said that amount should be higher. The problem, she explained, is that many feel ashamed to ask for help or do not understand the application process. All the while, she said they are overwhelmed with the struggle to pay for necessities.
“The price of everything is going up, so you see more and more seniors struggle to put food on the table,” Pitz said. “They often have to make difficult choices between: Do they pay for medicine or do they buy food? Do they pay the electric bill or do they buy food?”
In answer to these issues, the coalition is proposing and raising support for three legislative actions: implementing a standard medical deduction so the elderly will not be forced to use food money for medicine, increasing the minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $30 a month and simplifying the SNAP application. Simplifying the application would be particularly helpful, she said, since one of the most common obstacles preventing seniors from benefiting from SNAP is the confusion caused by various documentation requirements and the online application process.
Steve Kroll, who has helped numerous senior citizens apply for SNAP benefits through his work as a Jewish Family Services volunteer, suggested another way to help: making the process more transparent. Kroll, who has two photographs in the “Soul of Hunger” exhibit, including one depicting a senior’s refrigerator holding more medication than food, said he has often encouraged people to apply, guided them through the procedure and helped them during the verification only to see them receive hardly any funding. He said the experience is frustrating, to say the least.
“It’s almost insulting to them, and it causes more emotional anguish,” Kroll said in a Dec. 14 phone interview. “You’re just kind of at a loss when $16 is all they get. It doesn’t make for a big difference in their lives, and they wonder why they went through the process.”
Kroll said he understands that New Jersey cannot afford to give out huge sums of money. But he said he would feel much better about the situation if the state informed SNAP applicants how their benefits were being calculated to make sure that they were getting as much as possible. After all, he pointed out, the state’s handling of SNAP has been called into question in the past, referring to the USDA’s threat to pull $139 million in program funding last year due to frequently missed deadlines and a slow processing time.
Of course, raising awareness for the issue is of the utmost importance, which is why the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ hosted a press conference with the coalition and its other partner agencies to launch the “Soul of Hunger” exhibit on Dec. 8. Community Relations Committee Director Melanie Roth Gorelick said alerting people to the needs of hungry seniors and disabled citizens is vital to bringing about change. And change is especially needed today, Gorelick said, as 160,000 New Jersey families are dealing with the loss of $170 million in SNAP benefits following Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have satisfied the federal Heat and Eat program.
Heat and Eat allows anyone receiving Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits to receive SNAP benefits as well. Last year, Congress increased the amount of money people were required to receive from LIHEAP to still be eligible for SNAP. Though the New Jersey Senate voted 36-1 to satisfy this change, Christie vetoed it citing a lack of documentation. And now New Jersey is one of only four states that have been affected by the federal cut.
Though service organizations like the Jewish Federation have tried to support families in need by supplying food, grants and help with the SNAP application process, Gorelick said nothing they can do will replace government funding. She said that is why the Jewish Federation is calling on people to learn more about food insecurity to hopefully make a difference in the future.
“We need to mobilize people to take action,” Gorelick said in a Dec. 11 phone interview. “We believe that there won’t be a lot of changes made to the next budget for the hungry. But we want to start raising more awareness about the need, especially for seniors who are hungry, and we are starting to lay the groundwork for people to understand the issues so we can bring our concerns to the legislature at the appropriate time.”
MAZON, a nationwide Jewish anti-hunger organization that participated in the press conference, is helping the federation and other local groups in this effort. National Synagogue organizer Samuel Chu said MAZON has partnered with the group to educate synagogues throughout Essex County on the state of hunger in New Jersey. By doing so, Chu said his organization hopes to create advocates of people who had previously never realized the extent of the problem, and encourage them to show those in need how they can get help.
“As more people become aware of how and why and the way they can get access to these programs, you can get more people to the help that they need,” Chu said in a Dec. 10 phone interview. “Instead of giving $5 to a person on the street, you can say ‘You can apply to these programs that can get you back on your feet.’”
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver also wants to raise awareness for the cause, which is why she felt compelled to participate in the anti-hunger press conference. As she explained in an interview, she and her staff have helped many struggling families through the years, so supporting the hungry — including seniors — is an issue close to her heart. Moving forward, Oliver said she plans to continue to do so by alerting people to programs offered by Essex County, such as the ones that provide heating oil and home aides to the elderly. The assemblywoman also suggested giving incentives to businesses that donate to charities.
On top of that, Oliver said she hopes her fellow lawmakers at the state and national levels will work together to find ways of helping the elderly.
“In a nation as well off as we are, and being a leader of the free world, there’s more we can do to address this issue of elderly people who are vulnerable,” Oliver said in a Dec. 11 phone interview, pointing out the famous adage that one can measure the morals and ethics of a society by how it treats its old and young. “It’s a big problem.”