The COVID-19 pandemic increased economic need and prompted the expansion of food assistance programs to address that need. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were extended to more families, the amount of available assistance was increased, and online purchases were allowed. In Central Indiana, and Indiana as a whole, the number of households using SNAP, purchases, and spending increased substantially compared to pre-pandemic levels. In addition, online SNAP purchasing grew steadily among all population groups, although uptake among older adults of color remained significantly lower than White older adults.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal food assistance program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutrition of low- and no-income people. SNAP benefits can be one of the most crucial tools for seniors and older adults to access nutritional food sources when they otherwise couldn’t. According to a 2019 study, SNAP in conjunction with other food assistance programs, has largely eliminated severe malnutrition and hunger.
A ten-year longitudinal study that looked more specifically at SNAP efficacy in older adults, found that participation reduced the probability of hospitalization by 45.8% compared to those who were not participants.
By reducing food insecurity, the SNAP program promotes healthy aging by providing proper nutrition for increased health outcomes such as improved recovery times after injuries or surgeries, reduced risk of falls because of stronger muscles and bones, and reduced suffering from chronic conditions.
Changes to the SNAP program spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated effects on SNAP usage offer an opportunity to gain insight into possible age disparities in SNAP access.
In 2021, 42 million people were served by SNAP across the United States, with a program cost of $113 billion.4
Changes to Federal SNAP Policy Driven by the COVID-19 Pandemic
While federal food assistance has significantly grown and changed since its inception in 1964 (see sidebar), the COVID-19 pandemic spurred some of the largest changes in SNAP policy in recent years. Specifically, new bills passed by Congress allowed all SNAP households to receive the maximum benefits for their household size and boosted all benefits by an additional 15%. Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020, emergency SNAP allotment was enacted with the passage of the Families First Corona Virus Response Act (FFCRA) on March 18, 2020, with an effect date of April 1, 2020 . The new law also initiated “Pandemic EBT”, to allow families with school children who would normally receive free or reduced lunch to qualify for nutritional assistance when schools have been closed for at least 5 consecutive days or for schools that adopted a hybrid schedule as a response to COVID 19 changes.5 While the 15% increase in maximum benefits that was approved in the December 2020 federal COVID-19 Relief package ended in September 2021, it was followed by a permanent increase in benefits starting on October 1, 2021, by approximately $12-$16 per person per month.6
The FFCRA gave states flexibility with federal funding to provide support to families affected by pandemic related hardships.7 This flexibility led some states, including Indiana, to continue to request emergency allotment federal funds into 2022.8 Under Indiana House Bill 1001, passed March 3, 2022 , emergency allotment ended for all Indiana residents on April 16, 2022, and the last month to receive emergency-enhanced SNAP benefits was May 2022.9 The changes in SNAP usage in Indiana while the emergency policies were in effect provide insight on potential barriers to use.
History of SNAP
Federal food assistance emerged with the passage of the Food Stamp Act in 1964, and since its passage, the program has significantly grown. It has also changed in terms of required income eligibility documentation, work registration, and employment search. The 1980s marked the beginning of the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) transition, allowing enrolled households to use a debit card to purchase food. The 1990s brought more changes, including the restoration of food stamp eligibility for older adults, people with disabilities, and children of immigrants. In 2008, the name of the Food Stamp program was changed to SNAP, to reduce stigma toward those who participated in it. The passage of legislation during the Obama Administration increased access and funding for the program, with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increasing monthly benefit amounts by approximately $80 per four-person household. 1 COVID-19 relief acts passed in 2020 and 2021 increased eligibility and funding, including the Family First Coronavirus Response Act of March 2020.
Indiana SNAP Policy
While SNAP is funded at the federal level, it is administered at the state level. Each state has different processes and guidelines for program eligibility and implementation. The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) manages the program in Indiana. 1 Indiana households are eligible for SNAP if they earn less than 130% of the federal poverty guideline. Most households must also pass a net income test, which considers housing costs, child support payments, and child or dependent care payments. 1 There are also limits for savings or assets, and a work or job training requirement for able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49. (This requirement is waived during the expanded Federal Public Health Emergency, which has been in place since March 14, 2020.
SNAP Use by Older Adults in Central Indiana
For this study, we analyzed 10.6 million SNAP transactions during three periods: January 1 to May 7 during the years 2019, 2020, and 2021. (When we compare one year to another, we are always referring to this period within each year, not a full year.) This represents all transactions, including adults of any age. Each household receives one EBT card, so these transactions represent household-level data.
Older adults (age 55 or older) represent a significant share of SNAP households. In the first months of 2021, more than a quarter of SNAP households were older adults Indiana (28%) and Central Indiana (26%).
SNAP Use at the Start of the Pandemic
Nearly 105,000 households headed by older adults in Indiana used SNAP at some point between January 1st and May 7th, 2021. Compared to the same period in 2019, SNAP households had increased by 10% for those age 55 and over and 39% for those age 18 to 54. This suggests that, while older adults may have experienced less economic shocks than the working-age population, they still experienced a significant increase in financial needs during the pandemic.
The increase in SNAP households began in the first months of the pandemic. Between the first and second quarter of 2020, older adult SNAP households increased by 4%, while younger adult SNAP households increased by 18%. SNAP households continued to climb through the first quarter of 2021.
Increase in SNAP households age 55+ compared to 2019
Increase in SNAP households age 18-54 compared to 2019
There was a 4% increase in older adult SNAP households in 2020. While the number of older adult transactions increased by only 1%, older adults spent 25% more with each transaction ($38.87 in 2019 and $48.74 in 2020).
Adults age 65 and older increased their spending per transaction more than those age 55 and older. Comparing 2020 and 2019, the 65 and older group made 3% made more purchases and spent 39% more on each purchase
These changes in older adult SNAP usage resulted in a 31% increase in their total SNAP spending between 2020 and 2019, from $85.2 million in 2019 to $111.6 million in 2020.
By 2021, both transactions and spending had increased substantially. Older adults now made 8.6 transactions per month and spent an average of $52.29 with each transaction. As a result, total spending increased 78% compared to 2020. Total spending for older adults reached $199.0 million during January 1 to May 7, 2021. This spending behavior seems to coincide with the enactment of the emergency allotment, started in April 2021, which brought every household to the maximum benefit, as well as the December 2020 COVID-19 Relief package which increased the maximum benefit of SNAP by 15%.
In addition to SNAP, two other major federal programs support food security for older adults. Congregate Nutrition Services provides food services in group setting such as senior centers. Home-Delivered Nutrition Services (known to as “meals on wheels”) provide services to homebound older adults. In 2016, Congregate Nutrition Services served 1.6 million seniors and meals on wheels served 867,000. The programs are federally funded (with a 15% match from states) and administered locally by Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs).10
Older adults in Indiana can call 2-1-1 to connect with needed services as well. In central Indiana there were 1,768 calls in 2019 to 2-1-1 with 6 zip codes having at least 2% of residents make a call and 87% of those calls requesting help accessing food pantries.11 There are other services that the USDA provides such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program which provides reimbursements for nutritious food in adult day care centers or the Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program which works to provide low-income seniors, especially those who are not as mobile or live in food deserts, the opportunity to have access to fresh produce.
Who Uses SNAP?
SNAP households are more frequent and increasing fastest among people aged 55 to 64.
Indiana SNAP householders per 1,000 people by age, 2019 and 2021 rates
Adults between 55 and 64 years of age are more likely to use SNAP than older age groups. Out of every 1,000 people in this age group, 73 used SNAP in the 2021 study period. For those age 65 to 84 this rate falls to 42 per 1,000, and for the oldest group (85 and older) the rate is 18 per 1,000.
The pandemic increase in older adult SNAP households was driven mostly by those aged 55 to 64. This group increased by 12% between 2019 and 2021, while those aged 65 to 84 increased only 1%. SNAP households 85 or older decreased by 15%.
In both Indiana and Central Indiana, most SNAP households are White. Due to the way race and ethnicity data is collected, Latino SNAP households fall under “other” in FSSA’s data. FSSA’s data collection differs from the US Census Bureau’s methods, making it inadvisable to calculate a rate of SNAP households by race. However, according to the 2020 census, 68% of Central Indiana residents identify as White and not Hispanic or Latino and 15% identify as Black and not Hispanic or Latino. In Indiana, 75% of residents are White and not Hispanic or Latino, while 9% are Black and not Hispanic or Latino.
The racial composition of SNAP households also changed, becoming slightly more racially diverse. Between 2019 and 2021, Black SNAP households increased by over 900 (10%), White SNAP households grew by almost 500 (4%), and SNAP households of another race increased by over 1,200 (25%).
Older adult SNAP households are most common in Marion, Morgan, and Shelby Counties
Central Indiana SNAP households per 1,000 people by county, 2021 rates
Within Central Indiana, the rate of SNAP households varies from 9 per 1,000 older adults in Hamilton County to 49 per 1,000 adults in Marion County. SNAP households tend to be more common in counties with higher poverty rates. When normalized by the older adult population in poverty, there is less variation between counties. Still, Marion, Morgan, and Shelby counties have higher rates of SNAP households for every 1,000 older adults in poverty.
Change in older adult SNAP households by county (Jan-May 2019, Jan-May 2021)
Of the eight counties in the Central Indiana region, Hamilton County experienced the largest growth (15%) in the number of older households with a SNAP transaction between 2019 and 2021. At 4%, Boone County experienced the smallest growth in transactions. Marion and Shelby, two counties with high rates of SNAP households, also experienced high increases during the period.
SNAP in a Changing Environment: Online Shopping
In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allowing SNAP to be used for online purchases. Online purchasing in Indiana began in May 2020 at retailers Walmart and Amazon (through the Whole Foods brand).12 In December 2020, Aldi was added to the list of permitted online retailers.13 SNAP benefits cannot be used to pay for online service and delivery fees, but can be used to pay for all eligible items in online orders.
As a result of these rule changes, SNAP usage increased substantially and consistently. In Central Indiana, 6% of older adult SNAP households made an online purchase in the first quarter of 2021. Online purchases are more common among younger clients. Ten percent of SNAP households age 18-54 made an online purchase in the first quarter of 2021. The growth rate was similar between younger and older clients: The number of SNAP households age 18-54 making an online purchase grew by 351% between Q2 2020 and Q1 2021. The growth rate was 322% for older adults.
Throughout the entire study period, online shopping was about 60% to 80% more common among White SNAP households compared to people of color. Growth was slightly faster among people of color (355% over four quarters) compared to White SNAP households (296%). This caused the difference in online shopping rates to shrink over time.
Online shopping uptake among Central Indiana SNAP households, by age
Policy changes put into effect in 2020 and 2021 expanded access to healthy food for older adults. Between the 2019 and 2021 study periods, the number of older adult Hoosiers using SNAP increased by nearly 7,000. The number of transactions increased by 1.5 million. And the amount spent increased by $87 million. Still, there is work to be done expanding access to online transactions, where uptake among older adults of color is significantly lower than White older adults. Additional online retailer options can help expand access as well. Indiana has 10 authorized retailers as of September 2022. Geographic differences should be examined more closely. In Central Indiana, even when accounting for differences in the number of people in poverty, older adults in affluent counties are less likely to utilize SNAP. It is possible that, with SNAP usage less common in those counties, stigma is higher or knowledge about how to access and use the SNAP program is lower.
Online shopping uptake among older-adult Central Indiana SNAP households, by race
- National Council on Aging, “Get the Facts on SNAP and Senior Hunger” (2021), https://www.ncoa.org/article/get-the-facts-on-snap-and-senior-hunger
- Jean L Lloyd and Nancy S Wellman, “Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs: A Community-Based Nutrition Program Helping Older Adults Remain at Home” (2015), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26106983/
- James P. Ziliak and Craig Gundersen, “Senior Hunger in America 2019” (2021), https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/2021%20-%20State%20of%20Senior%20Hunger%20in%202019.pdf
- USDA, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Costs” (2022), https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/SNAPsummary-3.pdf
- FSSA, “DFR Policy Changes and Actions” (2020), https://www.in.gov/fssa/dfr/dfr-policy-changes-and-actions/
- USDA, “SNAP Benefit Changes: October 1, 2021” (2021), https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dfa/foodstamps/documents/snap-changes-october-2021.pdf
- USDA, “Indiana: COVID-19 Waivers and Flexibilities” (2022), https://www.fns.usda.gov/disaster/pandemic/covid-19/indiana#snap
- USDA, “SNAP COVID-19 Emergency Allotments Guidance” (2022), https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/covid-19-emergency-allotments-guidance
- Indiana General Assembly, “House Enrolled At No. 1001” (2022), http://iga.in.gov/legislative/2022/bills/house/1001#document-08361e54
- Congressional Research Service, “Older Americans Act: Nutrition Services Program” (2018), https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/IF10633.pdf
- The Polis Center at IUPUI & the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health, “Food Insecurity” (2021), https://centralindiana.stateofaging.org/report-data/food-insecurity/
- Holly V. Hays, “Indiana SNAP benefits can now be used to shop online at Aldi, via Instacart” (2020) https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2020/12/21/indiana-food-stamps-snap-can-now-used-online-aldi-via-instacart/3995645001/