“I don’t have many people visiting me” – You might be surprised to hear that your neighbor is hungry
My teenage son and I volunteered together for a local Meals on Wheels program in the summer of 2020 when COVID caused an increase in the need for Meals on Wheels delivery services and a decrease in volunteers.
We were assigned an itinerary of eight clients, all of whom lived several miles from our home. My son was initially surprised by the number of older adults in our community who relied on this service.
Indeed, many middle-class and affluent people are surprised when they learn that some of their neighbors, including millions of older adults, are struggling with food insecurity – defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate nutrition.
“There is a lack of understanding regarding the food insecurity, hunger and isolation that many seniors experience,” says Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America.
“The public may think that problems are only happening in certain areas or that food insecurity is temporary, caused by situations like the pandemic. But in fact, many older people from all walks of life and walks of life struggle with food insecurity for a variety of reasons,” she says.
Patricia Arthur, 71, is a Meals on Wheels customer in Richmond, Virginia. “I’m blind so I can’t cook myself and it’s hard for me to go out alone to get food,” she says. “It’s something that really worries my daughter, who works a lot. Fortunately, there is Meals on Wheels to deliver nutritious meals to me.
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What is food insecurity?
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food to lead an active and healthy life.
Feed Americaa national network of more than 200 nonprofit food banks, said in its latest report on The state of hunger among seniors that 5.2 million older adults (1 in 15) were food insecure in 2020. They are more likely to face hunger if they identify as Black, Latino or Native American, have income inferior or disabled.
As the country’s elderly population continues to grow, future challenges will also increase.
The causes of food insecurity vary, Hollander explains. “There are economic and social issues at stake. Older adults are generally retired and on fixed incomes. After paying rent, utilities and medicine, they may not have enough money to eat properly,” she says. “Or they may have medical issues that prevent them from buying food or cooking meals.”
Additionally, many children and grandchildren have moved in with their parents during the pandemic. “Older people can choose to feed their families and go hungry themselves,” she says.
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Empathy for those who struggle
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, said while there is empathy for those facing food insecurity, there is still more to be done. “Sometimes there is a misconception of ‘deserved hunger’ and older people facing food insecurity have done something wrong that has caused the problem,” she says. “It’s not that they haven’t worked hard all their lives or that they haven’t planned well. Food insecurity can happen to anyone at any time.
People make assumptions about what food insecurity looks like. They may not realize that the person with the nice house may not be able to afford food or may have some kind of health crisis that is causing financial problems. Babineaux-Fontenot described a common scenario:
“One spouse gets sick and the other takes care of them. They face increasing bills for medical care and prescription drugs. Then, the spouse dies and the one who took care of him finds himself with a huge debt and is not able to feed himself. So they eat less or make poor nutritional choices and end up getting sick themselves.
Many people eligible for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to by its acronym, INSTANTANEOUS) or other types of services may not realize that these programs are available to them or they may be too proud to ask for help. But a lack of nutrition can put seniors at risk for a variety of chronic health problems, from depression to diabetes.
“Older people may think ‘I’m not so badly off’ or ‘I don’t want to take food from someone who really needs it when they’re in trouble,'” Babineaux-Fontenot says. “I met a woman from Florida who had volunteered for several years at Meals on Wheels. Then one day she found herself on the other side of the line needing this service herself. She never thought this would happen to her, but it did.
Support for those affected
The pandemic shone a light on food insecurity in 2020, but the light has faded over time, Hollander says. “When the pandemic started, there was an outpouring of support,” she says. “People gave generously; they volunteered and made food donations and financial contributions.
“People came back to their lives when the world started to reopen and support dwindled,” she adds. “Other issues in the world have become the focus of the news. Food insecurity has been pushed out of the headlines although it remains a problem, especially with rising inflation and supply chain issues.
Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, recently renewed the federal government Public Health Emergency Declaration for COVID in mid-October. This 90 day renewal automatically extended temporary arrangements Congress has approved increased access to federal nutrition programs and improved food benefits.
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It’s important to remember that local food banks, group meal programs and Meals on Wheels don’t just feed seniors. They also connect them to their community and provide them with emotional support. Arthur calls the volunteers who deliver his meals “angels on wheels.”
“I don’t have a lot of people visiting me,” she says. “The volunteers are so nice. They keep me company and help me put away the food. Not only do they feed me, but they also monitor me to make sure I’m okay.
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son. Learn more about his work at randimazzella.com.
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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