A SNAP application packet that the Food Policy Advisory Committee has put together for delivery to eligible recipients. (Photo provided by Haley Holeton of FPAC)

TJ O’Connor, 78, moved from Florida to New Orleans in the early days of the pandemic. He’d worked as a sculptor here decades ago, and planned to set up shop again. But it’s been slow-going.

He drove here, but his car broke down a few months after the move, and he takes a shuttle service and buses to get to doctor’s appointments. Getting to a food pantry, he said in a phone interview with The Lens, took “three buses or something. It was kind of crazy.”

Through a chain of organizations, including the New Orleans Council on Aging and the Musician’s Clinic, he’s been able to get meals delivered to his house. But those solutions won’t go on forever, and he wants more control over his diet: “You don’t get milk, yogurt, or cheese. Anything perishable, pretty much.”

To fill that gap, he’s applied for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).

Louisiana has one of the lowest rates of SNAP enrollment among the elderly. Only about 30 percent of eligible seniors were on the program as of a 2015 Food Research and Action Center report. Danny Mintz, the director of safety net policy at the Louisiana Budget Project, attributes that in part to misunderstandings about requirements and technological barriers. Meanwhile, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit Feeding America, 13 percent of seniors are food insecure in the city of New Orleans, the second-highest rate in any metropolitan area in the country.

For many, Mintz said, that insecurity — technically defined as inconsistent access to nutritional food — has deepened into outright hunger. Food banks and other nonprofits have seen demand skyrocket. And the economic consequences of COVID are likely to remain long after transmission stops.

Over the summer, the city of New Orleans debuted a large community feeding program, funded through a mix of local and federal dollars.  New Orleans officials said was the first of its kind in the country.

The program has provided a lifeline for many seniors. About 4,000 of the 11,000 people enrolled are over 65, said Leila Darwish, a community engagement coordinator with the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness who oversees the program.

The problem, said Haley Holeton, the SNAP coordinator for local nonprofit Food Policy Advisory Committee, is that “funding runs out, and you’ve got to have something to do, because emergency feeding programs are not meant to last forever.”

The program is currently funded through Saturday, January 30.

As of Friday, the city had not yet received word from FEMA as to whether the program would be extended for another month, although Laura Mellem, a public engagement manager with NOLA Ready, described that as typical.

“[FEMA] usually tells us the last day of the program,” she said. “The city has agreed to extend for one week on our dime in case the program is extended. This is something that we’ve done every time.”

The city expects to hear if FEMA funding is extended early next week, in which case that city expenditure will be reimbursed.

Right now, Holeton is the sole person staffing an FPAC hotline, where she connects seniors, including O’Connor, who call in with long-term food assistance. But she worries that when the city’s emergency feeding program ends, not everyone who it’s helping will have time to transition before meals run out.

Meal Assistance Program

The COVID-19 Meal Assistance Program has grown steadily since it began in July, and delivers meals from local restaurants through the nonprofit Chef’s Brigade.

The program is targeted at those who can’t go to grocery stores and restaurants because they’re at high risk for COVID, largely seniors and people with pre-existing conditions. There are no income requirements, and people can also sign up if they need to quarantine after a positive test result or COVID exposure.

The Meal Assistance Program has been a month-to-month project since its inception. It’s supported by a cost-sharing agreement with FEMA, which reimburses the city for 75 percent of the cost of the program. But when the program began, it was only slated to run for a month and to cover $18 million in total costs.

Every month since, the city has requested and been granted an extension.

“There’s still a risk to our people, our highest need groups, and FEMA is making decisions based on that,” Darwish said.

Still, the city can’t expect that it will continue to receive funding for as long as it thinks it needs it.

“There are just nationally, and at the state and local level, complex things at work here,” Darwish said. “We would certainly hope that FEMA is able to extend this program and the benefit it is offering to the residents. But really there are not any firm expectations for a lot of things in the pandemic.”

The city doesn’t know exactly how many of the 4,000 seniors served by its program might need long-term food assistance, but Elisa Munoz, FPAC’s director, believes that they should be reaching out to those people to see if they’re interested in SNAP.

While they last, Mintz said, emergency programs present an opportunity for the city to connect seniors with services.

“We want to use this opportunity, when folks are mobilized around hunger, to make sure that as a city, we’re communicating directly with our elders about the longer-term benefits that are available to them.”

The challenge is that because of FEMA requirements, someone can’t be enrolled in both SNAP and the Meal Assistance Program at the same time. Anyone who signs up for long-term benefits will immediately lose emergency assistance.

Because of that tradeoff, Darwish called FPAC’s SNAP sign-up work “a good idea,” but said “we are in a pandemic, and for our seniors who have high risk health conditions, the safest place for them is in their home receiving two meals a day seven days a week. I think that actually gets them a lot more than SNAP benefits at this time.”

The city has had conversations with other meal distribution groups about how the program will wind down since it began, said Darwish.

“What we are hoping is that when the meal program ends, we will have the ability to share information with residents: these are the programs that have the ability to support you, potentially even to take you on as additional clients if there’s capacity.”

How to make the shift

But shifting hundreds or even thousands of people to long-term food assistance programs with a month’s notice could present massive challenges. That problem is especially acute for seniors, who may need extra technical assistance.

If the city waits until the last month to start shifting meal recipients onto SNAP, said Munoz, “that means there’s a gap for a little while, where folks do not have anything.”

Although food banks, Meals on Wheels and other programs might take some of the slack, “SNAP is the largest and most effective food assistance and hunger relief program in the United States,” Mintz said. “The food bank world will often say that for every meal a food bank serves, SNAP serves nine meals.”

SNAP usually scales benefits by income level, but until June, every enrollee is receiving the maximum benefit, which was increased by 15 percent in the December 27 COVID relief bill. The Biden administration has also issued an executive order that is expected to permanently increase SNAP benefits.

But the application process for SNAP, which is easiest to access through an online portal, can be a barrier.

“A lot of our seniors don’t have access to the internet,” said Holeton, or otherwise can’t navigate the portal.

Soon after she began working the FPAC hotline, she noticed that clients were calling in asking to have paper applications mailed to them. And in some cases, the applications never arrived.

“I started to notice this pattern,” she said, and “we needed to figure out a way to get these applications to our seniors who are out of reach.”

The most effective strategy, she and Munoz decided, would be to deliver applications by hand, and guide applicants through the process.

For the last several weeks, Holeton has been personally driving SNAP applications to seniors who request them. She leaves a pre-stamped envelope with the materials, but in many cases also picks up the finished application and takes it to the post office herself.

SNAP simplified its application during the pandemic, including doing away with in-person interviews. Still, Holeton walks some people through the steps of the application over the phone.

When FPAC first opened its hotline, Munoz filled out a test SNAP application to understand better the obstacles that her clients would face. The sheer amount of paperwork, she said, was challenging even for her.

“I’m pretty tech savvy, and this is the work that I do, and I was kind of amazed at how tricky it was,” she said. 

There was the birth certificate or baptismal certificate, followed by pay stubs or an employer’s statement, and it wasn’t clear to her how she would handle the requirement if she’d lost gig work because of COVID.

“You have to have your termination notice statement, which is just another thing you have to go find. And if you’re in the service industry, it may just be that your shifts were cut off,” she said.

An applicant might also need paperwork documenting child support payments, Social Security benefits, rent and unemployment, which itself has been subject to delays. Those over 60 or who are disabled can deduct some medical expenses, like doctors visits, home health aides, or even dentures.

She knew that there was a number she could call for help, but “one of the issues folks are having is that the number is inundated. There are a lot of people in need.”

Holeton said it can take up to a month for someone to receive SNAP benefits. It took two weeks for O’Connor to enroll after filing the application, but the process still isn’t done: his SNAP card, which he’d actually use to buy groceries, was sent to an expired P.O. box, so he’s waiting.

O’Connor isn’t worried about going to the grocery store, but for those who are, SNAP requires a second step: signing up for a different food delivery program. A program called Top Box Food will deliver grocery boxes, and can be paid for with SNAP, said Holeton. But in effect, transitioning a high-risk senior over to SNAP might take two separate sign-ups.

“What we are trying to advocate for is signing them up while they are on the city meal program,” said Munoz, so that even if they can’t receive city meals, there won’t be a gap in support. But, she continued, if that doesn’t happen, it’s possible that more emergency feeding programs will be needed.