Division of NCDA&CS working to expand food assistance program for seniors

by | Aug 4, 2022

A program that helps low-income seniors get nutritious food has been expanding in North Carolina, thanks to the work of the NCDA&CS Food Distribution Division and its partner agencies.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) is now available to seniors (aged 60 and over) in 72 of North Carolina’s counties. It’s a USDA program created by Congress in 1969, but in North Carolina it was only in one county – Halifax – until it started to expand in 2016.

By 2019, 50 counties were served by the program. With the increase of 22 counties since 2019, the number of individuals served has gone up by 3,155 people – from 11,031 to 14,186. That’s what the program refers to as the “caseload” in the state.

This 2022 map shows counties with CSFP distribution

“We’ve come from one county in 2016 to 72 in 2022. We’ve made great strides to expand this program in North Carolina, and I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Melissa Ayscue, the Food Distribution Division’s Household Programs Administrator. “It doesn’t happen overnight, and we can’t do it without the caseloads awarded by USDA, but we’re working to show that need and justify our request.”

Ayscue was referring to the way the USDA assigns caseloads. The Food Nutrition Service of USDA considers a state’s participation rates and the supporting documentation provided with a request for a caseload increase. If North Carolina can show that more seniors could use the assistance, the USDA may increase the caseload in the state, which essentially means expanding the number of people who qualify to get a food box through CSFP.

The coronavirus pandemic has created some challenges in getting the food boxes to the current seniors who qualify. The program depends on food banks and partnering community food pantries to be the final link in getting food into the hands of seniors. Many of the volunteers who pack, prepare and distribute the CSFP boxes in those local organizations are seniors themselves, which has put them at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. So volunteers declined as they chose to steer clear of gatherings of people.

One way the food distributions have continued is through an increase in drive-through food pick-ups. That model has helped protect the health of volunteers and participants receiving food. Ayscue expects distribution volume will get back to pre-pandemic levels this year, and foresees the program could continue to expand because she’s certain there are more seniors who need food assistance in the state.

“There is a senior right now in need in every county across the state. All seniors deserve to have access to the program,” Ayscue said. “With the cost of groceries, this is even more needed. The Food Distribution Division’s goal is for seniors to have access to this program in all 100 counties.”

Ayscue points out that CSFP is truly a supplement – not meant to meet a person’s entire need for food – but she knows it’s a valuable helping hand. For example, some seniors don’t get everything they need through SNAP (previously called “food stamps”), so CSFP can fill the gap with nutritious foods.

“Nutrition is essential to a senior’s health. Some health problems that seniors may have could be traced back to poor nutrition,” she said. “It’s all about helping to support the nutritional needs of our seniors in the state of North Carolina. They need so much more than this box of food, but this does help.”

For counties that aren’t currently served, the division’s CSFP contracting agencies (such as food banks) will continue to promote this program and gather the supporting documentation needed to support a caseload increase. If there’s enough interest and need shown, it could be the first step in expanding the program into those counties. The Food Distribution Division’s field services team is always available to help partnering agencies with the logistics of the program.

“I’d love to be able to request a caseload increase no matter how great or small. Any increase we get means more seniors we’re able to serve,” Ayscue said.

This chart shows the options for food included in each CSFP box