Social worker Kristi Bennett provides meals to Judy Munley, a resident at St. Francis Villa in Philadelphia, one of several affordable senior living centers operated by Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS), April 3. CHCS staff are working to enroll seniors in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), using a $25,000 grant the agency recently received, to counter the rising issue of senior hunger. (Photo courtesy of Kristi Bennett)

Seniors served by the Philadelphia Archdiocese are getting a nutritional boost, thanks to a grant from one of the world’s largest retailers.

Through Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS) recently received $25,000 from the Walmart Foundation to help eligible adults enroll in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The average monthly SNAP benefit of $121 per senior can be “lifesaving,” said Karen Becker, director of senior centers and in-home support programs for CHCS, which offers a continuum of care to older adults throughout the archdiocesan area.

Research has shown that food insecurity places older adults at greater risk for depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, gum disease and asthma. African American and Hispanic seniors are twice as likely as their white counterparts to suffer from poor nutrition.

Through SNAP, seniors 60 and older can purchase eligible items — such as fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products – at approved stores, using funds loaded onto state-issued debit cards. With better diets, program participants tend to need less acute and long-term medical care.

In addition to improving health outcomes for older adults, the SNAP program helps to stimulate the local economy and create full-time jobs.

Yet even as food insecurity among seniors is on the rise, participation in SNAP remains low, with three out of five eligible recipients missing out on the benefit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made that deficit worse, said Becker, noting that “applications for SNAP have been down at our sites due to the coronavirus restrictions.”

In response, CHCS plans to use the CCUSA-Walmart Foundation grant to raise awareness of and access to SNAP across the five-county archdiocesan area, she said.

“Since the closing of (our) senior centers in March, we have not been able to attend expos or health fairs, or visit our senior centers and talk about SNAP benefits,” she said. “At present, we are putting flyers in our grab-and-go meals, newsletters, on our website and any other means we can use to get the word out.”

Applications to SNAP can be made online or in person at the county assistance office, but for many seniors, neither option is a fit. Lack of access to devices and high-speed internet access, coupled with the perceived stigma of applying for aid, can deter older adults, said Becker.

For working seniors, especially those aged 60 to 65, job loss from the pandemic may mark “the first time their income has been reduced to such extremes,” she added.

Through CHCS, “case managers are able to file the application electronically,” she said. “Individuals may call the senior helpline (888-679-7669), and a case manager will provide confidential benefit information and can advise the caller if they would be eligible, based on their current income.”

While encouraging SNAP applications, Becker and her team are redoubling efforts to keep area seniors fed in both body and spirit.

To date, CHCS’s senior centers and in-home support programs have provided some 45,000 grab-and-go meals, 2,200 meal deliveries and 100 grocery deliveries. Staff have made 5,000 wellness calls to ensure clients’ physical, mental and emotional stability.

The agency is also expanding its portfolio of affordable senior housing. Earlier this month, CHCS broke ground on St. Rita’s Place, which will provide 46 one-bedroom apartments for income-qualified older adults in South Philadelphia, while announcing plans for the 50-unit St. Joseph’s Place in Collingdale.