Could you choose between the basics—food or medicine, groceries or utilities, nutrition or transportation? These are impossible choices, yet more than one in 11 Americans age 65 or older struggle with hunger, and are forced to make these decisions every day.

Hunger is a chronic problem in America that impacts many seniors living on fixed incomes. Fortunately, solutions exist to ensure older Americans get the nutrition they need for their health and well-being.

Accessing help

One of the most effective solutions is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps), a federal nutrition program that provides monthly benefits to help eligible low-income households put food on the table. SNAP serves as a lifeline for about 3.6 million older Americans who struggle against hunger, food insecurity and poverty.

Unfortunately, there are millions of eligible seniors who do not benefit from SNAP even though they could, leaving many of them to make impossible decisions between food and other essential items.

“Hunger increases disability, decreases resistance to infection, and extends hospital stays.”

There are several possible reasons for this. Among them are that older Americans may not know that they even qualify for the program, or if they do, they are unsure about how they can apply. Other possible reasons are seniors may feel stigma about receiving government benefits, they may face mobility and transportation barriers to applying or recertifying in person, or they may simply be overwhelmed by the paperwork involved.

Getting involved

Decreasing hunger is crucially important to every community, to every state and to the nation as a whole. Helping seniors get, and stay connected to, SNAP reduces hunger’s reach on the individual and community levels.

There are many ways you can pitch in to help end senior hunger. Start by checking out a toolkit from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) and the AARP Foundation for practical tips and examples on how communities can raise awareness of senior hunger, address food insecurity and increase senior SNAP participation. You can also volunteer to provide SNAP outreach to eligible seniors and urge your local policymakers to improve seniors’ SNAP benefits.

What’s at stake

Tackling senior hunger with SNAP is not only the right thing to do, it also makes sound economic sense. Seniors who eat more nutritiously live in better health, which leads to fewer dollars spent on Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs. Another fiscal reward is that every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates $9 in total economic activity.

Conversely, failing to close the senior SNAP gap puts seniors’ health and community vitality at risk. Food-insecure seniors are more than twice as likely to report fair or poor health status. Hunger increases disability, decreases resistance to infection, and extends hospital stays.

SNAP matters, for those who receive it and for the communities in which they reside. SNAP positively influences economic activity, poverty, food insecurity, and health on multiple levels. With higher SNAP participation, greater SNAP benefits, and political will, senior hunger can be stopped.