A stack of beets is on sale at the DuPont Circle Farmers Market in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The federal government is expanding a program to create incentives for low-income people, particularly older Americans, to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables using food stamps. The U.S. Agriculture Department has joined with businesses, state agencies and nonprofits such as AARP to draw in low-income elders who may not get enough food or the right food to eat.

The program has given dollar-for-dollar matches, increased the number places that accept food stamps for payment, including farmers markets, and gone into grocery stores to educate elders about good nutrition. It’s a program that is being watched in the District, where a significant number of people who are 65 and older live in poverty.

“It’s a lot of money, and it’s going to affect a lot of families,” Michel Nischan, a chef who has founded and headed Wholesome Wave, a Bridgeport, Conn.-based nonprofit.

Wholesome Wave, which is one of several nonprofits that received a matching USDA grant, will use nearly $4 million to expand its affordable food network with other charitable organizations. The organization has already worked with farmers markets in the District to increase affordable food for low-income people of all ages by allowing them to use food stamps at farmers markets. Nischan said the program has benefited recipients, businesses, and small farms.

Yet many seniors are reluctant to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the program is officially known. Advocates for low-income people and seniors said many in the older generation perceive a stigma in accepting food stamps. Others find the paperwork too cumbersome for such a small monthly benefit – as low as $16 per month in some states. The result is that only 42 percent of seniors who are eligible for SNAP participate in the program, compared with 83 percent of others who are eligible.

Yet, USDA officals said the program benefits not just seniors, but society as a whole. Older Americans who do not have healthy diets are not going be healthy, and their medical bills cost taxpayers money.

“A lot of people when they think SNAP think of poor people, but they don’t necessarily think of poor senior people. But the reality is there are a lot of seniors who are living on a very small fixed income,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview Friday. “And many seniors are proud people. And they don’t understand that SNAP is designed to be a supplement. It’s not a handout. It’s not welfare.”

Critics of federal government largesse suggest that the reason that the benefits are not used by seniors is that they may not be as necessary as supporters believe, and that the Obama administration has been more eager to promote dependency on government than nutrition. That view is reflected in part by a recent Republican plan to balance the budget by cutting $5.5 trillion over a decade, including savings from converting Medicaid and food stamps into block grants.

Republicans, noting that SNAP has increased from $21 billion in 2002 to $76 billion in 2014, would also put limits on the government’s ability to advertise and recruit people to enroll. More than 9 million older Americans struggle with hunger, according to the Meals on Wheels Association of America. The number has grown 44 percent since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. Nearly half of America’s seniors also live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line — less than $23,000 a year. In the District, 16 percent of seniors have incomes below the federal poverty level, which is defined as $11,770 per single-person household, compared with a the national average of 9 percent.

A more recent calculation of poverty rates by the Census Bureau bureau suggests poverty levels are even higher among seniors. The supplemental poverty measure, which deducts health-care costs from income, suggests the poverty rate among seniors in the District is as high as 26 percent. The Agriculture Department has awarded $31.5 million in grants — the first chunk of $100 million set aside in the 2014 Farm Bill over four years to address “food insecurity” — to a variety of organizations in 26 states to set up projects that encourage people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. The program is expected to reach about 5 million people altogether, particularly in the Deep South where poverty rates are among the nation’s highest.

In Florida, for example, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program partnered with the Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers to expand a program that gave SNAP participants a dollar-for-dollar incentive to buy fresh produce at farmers markets around the state. The program has had only limited application in the District so far, where Wholesome Wave has worked with DC Fresh Farm Markets, including their H Street Market, the Columbia Heights Market, D.C. Greens and the Arcadia Mobile Market to make fresh food more affordable for low-income people. “We created the incentives as a way to give that extra families that extra nudge,” Nischan said.

The USDA’s expansion of the program is particularly focused on Tennessee and Mississippi, which have some of the highest rates of poverty, diabetes and obesity in the United States. The federal government is working with the AARP Foundation, Kroger grocery stores, and those states’ SNAP agencies to use direct mail to reach approximately 200,000 people who are 50 years old and older.

“The facts are real. We have an aging population, and as the population ages, we find more and more seniors who are in poverty,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, an affiliated charity of the powerful lobby for older Americans.

Besides encouraging older seniors to enroll in SNAP, the program will train people to take elderly people on tours of their local grocery to learn about new, economical or overlooked vegetables or fruits and show them how to prepare them and keep them fresh. The Vanderbilt University Schools of Medicine and Psychology and Tennessee State University’s Center for Prevention Research will evaluate the program’s impact on older people. A pilot program in Massachusetts found that recipients increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by about 25 percent.

“This is part of a very holistic and comprehensive approach that this administration has taken toward nutrition policy,” Vilsack said. Douglas Besharov, professor of public policy at University of Maryland, said SNAP benefits provide useful income supplements for older Americans, who often struggle to get by on Social Security. But he also said advocates have perhaps blurred the line between hunger and food insecurity to bolster arguments for expanding the number of people who receive government benefits.

“On the left, there’s a strong feeling that everyone that’s eligible for a benefit should claim it. On the right, there’s a discomfort about that. If people didn’t think they needed the benefit, why should we force them into governmental dependency?” Besharov said. “I think the best way to think about this program is not about food — it’s about providing income support to low income Americans. And that’s appropriate.” Enid Borden, founder National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, said programs designed to improve older people’s nutrition often fail because they don’t give their recipients much choice. That’s not true of this approach, she said. “Look any time we can get seniors to eat more fruits and vegetables it’s a great idea,” Borden said.