Food stamp use is at an all-time high in Minnesota, with 478,455 people receiving benefits in January. But one group of Minnesotans seems particularly hesitant to sign up.
State officials estimate that only one in four Minnesota seniors eligible for the federally funded Food Support program is enrolled, slightly below the national average. That has advocates for seniors trying to convince more to apply.
Among those who recently began receiving food stamps for the first time is Agnes Bernhardt, of Shakopee, Minn.
Bernhardt, 76, never thought she'd need help with food. But about a year ago, she was the victim of a phone scam and lost most of her savings. She kept paying the bills -- but after everything else, there wasn't much left for food. That's when her doctor got on her case. Bernhardt remembers exactly what the doctor said.
"You don't skip on food," the doctor told her. "That's as important as paying the utilities."
Because she receives Social Security, Bernhardt never thought she'd be eligible for food assistance. But an outreach worker told her she was.
"I just had to put away my pride and just figure, well, I am poor right now," she said. "This is a benefit that my country allows, and I'm grateful for it."
Bernhardt has plenty of company. Across the United States, nearly eight percent of seniors living by themselves don't consistently have access to enough nutritious food. But they're not signing up in droves for Food Support.
"The senior participation rate is abysmally low," said Pete Lawyer, a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group in Minneapolis.
Lawyer led a 2009 study that found fewer than 25 percent of eligible older Minnesotans are enrolled in Food Support. He found many didn't know they qualified. Some also feared taking food stamps would reflect badly on them.
"A lot of these seniors are folks who lived through World War II," Lawyer said. "They are folks who may have been around in the Great Depression. These are not folks who very easily come to the conclusion that they should accept a 'handout' from the government."
Terry Hassan is trying to change that.
Hassan is a community outreach coordinator for Scott-Carver-Dakota CAP Agency that serves the southwest suburbs of Minneapolis. It's just one of many groups all over the state trying to convince older Minnesotans to accept Food Support.
On a recent evening, Hassan handed out brochures at an event in Shakopee.
The seniors she spoke with barely even glanced at the Food Support information. One woman quickly stuffed it in her purse. But that didn't worry Hassan. People will call her, sometimes weeks later, for help.
Hassan convinced 70-year-old Cynthia to sign up. Cynthia, who did not want to give her last name, said she hasn't told her adult children that she receives food stamps because she doesn't want them to feel like they have to help.
When Hassan first suggested Food Support, Cynthia wasn't so sure.
"I've worked all my life, and I just felt some level of embarrassment, to have to apply for food," Cynthia said.
She was used to paying the bills without help. But Cynthia lives almost entirely on Social Security. She had a retirement account, but after a major surgery and other bills, it is nearly depleted. She's worried about losing her house. Buying nutritious food wasn't her top priority.
"I've actually been drinking dry milk for at least three months," she said.
When Cynthia went to the grocery story, she could only afford one kind of fresh fruit. No fresh vegetables. So she turned in the application.
Cynthia received her Food Support allotment of $47 a month on a card she could swipe just like a credit card. Still, she worried that someone at the grocery store would notice. But once she used it, she said, it was worth it.
"I had one, two, three, four different kinds of fruits," she said. "Fresh apples, fresh oranges, fresh grapes, fresh strawberries. It was really nice."
Her advice to other seniors who are struggling: Don't wait as long as she did.
"It's like a getting diamond necklace," Cynthia said. "To suddenly know that you can eat like other people do, you know?"
Thousands of Minnesota seniors do know. Outreach workers are still trying to find the others -- and convince them there's no shame in signing up.