The Hunger Outreach Team (HOT) at Worcester State University (Mass.) is not your typical college class. For one thing, your fellow students can range in age from their late teens to their late 80s. (Worcester offers free classes for Massachusetts residents 60 and older.) For another, the program concentrates on helping people at risk of hunger learn about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and access benefits.
HOT is the brainchild of Maureen Power, a professor who heads Worcester State’s Intergenerational Urban Institute (IUI), where the HOT and other IUI teams tackle tough urban issues, such as hunger, affordable housing, and helping elder immigrants learn English. Maureen is also a pioneer in the area of service learning. Since she began teaching 37 years ago, Maureen has emphasized to students that serving the community is every bit as important as textbooks and term papers.
“The institute channels the energies of students of all ages to address urban issues,” Maureen explains. “The team spirit that evolves among the students is wonderful to watch. There’s a place for everyone.”
“The idea for HOT came after years of students working in food banks and food pantries as part of their studies,” she continues. “From our experience, we realized we could best help people who are food insecure by opening them up to the idea of applying for SNAP. We began to work closely with our Congressman, Jim McGovern, who is a stalwart of SNAP, as well as the Worcester Community Action Council and Project Bread. In 2008, we received a two-year Commonwealth Core Grant to reach out to elderly adults about SNAP.
“We targeted older adults because many were living on very small incomes and were being forced to choose between food and medicine,” Maureen explains. “They also resisted accepting any kind of aid because they thought it was for poor people, not for them.”
Under the grant, traditional-age college students and their elder colleagues joined with low-income youth from area high schools to reach out to the elderly.
“We concentrated on our efforts in senior and public housing sites, as well as local councils on aging,” Maureen notes. “We talked with older individuals and let them know that they could be eligible for SNAP. We even developed a SNAP bingo game as a fun way for them to learn about SNAP. The game was a big hit and elder residents learned a great deal in the process. At the end of our visits, we’d leave additional information and explain that we would be back to help them apply and also do any follow-up necessary on their application.”
During the grant period, Ending Hunger Together crew developed an excellent working relationship with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, which handles all SNAP applications. That collaboration, along with the streamlining of the SNAP application process, made it easier for older people to apply and receive benefits.
Over the past two years, HOT members also realized that many of their fellow college students, who were struggling to put food on the table, were probably eligible for SNAP. However, few of these young students knew about the program
and consequently hadn’t applied. “These students were hungry and running on empty,” Maureen explains. “We know college is stressful and we didn’t want food to become a setback for students in need. So, we created an office in the Urban Studies department where we help students apply for SNAP in confidence.”
Maureen says that the intergenerational aspect is HOT’s heart and soul. “Hunger spans the ages. Older adults worry that young people, children and families don’t have money for food. Young people worry that older people are not getting their nutritional needs met.
“It’s very heartwarming to see the way people of all ages work together. Everyone is deeply committed to HOT. There are no barriers; we all work on an equal footing.”
For more stories about hunger and nutrition across the generations, download Hunger and Nutrition in America: What's at Stake for Children, Families and Older Adults