California Forum

For older people struggling to get enough food, CalFresh can help. Here’s how to apply

I recently met an older woman at the grocery store, near the refrigerator where I buy milk, cheese and yogurt. She turned to me and said, “Everything costs so much!” I watched as she had to make choices between simple grocery staples. She didn’t have enough money to get the food she came for, and it was heartbreaking to see how desperately she needed it.

Older, low-income adults have suffered for too long when it comes to reliable access to nutritious food. But now, with the recent expansion of CalFresh benefits to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and State Supplementary Payment (SSP) recipients, we have an opportunity to give them the resources they need to eat healthy and lead more independent lives.

On June 1, hundreds of thousands of SSI recipients became newly eligible for CalFresh, formerly known as “food stamps,” for the first time in nearly 50 years. This change could provide SSI-enrolled adults who are older and people with disabilities with hundreds of dollars worth of healthy food each month.

For decades, these groups were denied access to CalFresh benefits because of their enrollment in SSI/SSP, a federal program that provides monthly payments to older adults and people with disabilities. Now that they can apply for CalFresh, it’s important to note that enrolling in the program will not reduce or eliminate anyone’s SSI benefits.


This is a breakthrough for older Californians whose financial situations often force them to choose between medication and a meal. Approximately 570,000 older Californians live off SSI benefits alone, and the truth is, it’s not enough. They aren’t provided enough benefits to thrive, and the soaring cost of living hasn’t helped.

More of them are becoming homeless. Their medications and copays stack up as they age and cost too much even with medical insurance. Many have worked hard all their lives and are resorting to cutting pills in half to stretch their budget. I’ve seen it too often, and it’s a scenario that rapidly sends older adults into declining health.

CalFresh benefits provide an important safety net to help keep people from making these choices. Each participant receives between $15 and $192 each month, with the average being $130. The amount varies depending on income, expenses and how many people live in your house. Applicants can even deduct their medical expenses from the income calculation.

Those who qualify will get a CalFresh electronic benefit card, which is loaded with money to buy healthy foods. These foods can range from fruits and vegetables, to milk and cheese, to fish, poultry and meat. Many farmers markets even match CalFresh recipients dollar for dollar – charging $10 for $20 worth of healthy produce, for example.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for older adults and people with disabilities, and I strongly encourage them to find out whether they are eligible for CalFresh benefits. Friends and family with aging parents can also apply on their behalf and secure this important benefit for their future.

Californians can apply in person, or online at Residents can also receive more information at

I invite other organizations to join AARP in helping to inform SSI recipients of this incredible benefit. Every organization who comes to the table will help us reach more eligible Californians.

The CalFresh expansion could be a game changer for the woman I met in the grocery store, as well as thousands of others with stories just like hers. By enrolling in this program, Californians will no longer have to wonder where their next meal is coming from or make choices between staples essential to good health.

Rita Saenz is a Sacramento-based member of American Association of Retired People’s (AARP) Executive Council.
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