Senior Hunger: Reporting from the Front Lines

May 23, 2012
by Kristina Rodriguez

When I tell people that I work as an Aging Services provider in sunny Southwest Florida (SWFL), I almost always get asked about the common images of palm trees and golden beaches full of well off active retirees. While that does exist in pockets inFlorida, so does the alternate reality. One where before the words "senior hunger" became well known we had an 80+ year old wheelchair bound local veteran wait in a hot summer heat line to get a bag of food to the carry to his car. When offered the bag of food and physical assistance to his car he looked up to our staffer and said "I am so sorry I have to take your food, but I am to sick to work and my wife needs to eat…I promise I have never asked for help before today".

In FL we are often called the "Petri-dish" of ideas and projects on how to overcome the latest issues and challenges facing our senior populations because we tend to see them first. Many of our service areas are unique in regards to how many low income elderly live in our "non metropolitan" towns and age into very late life in our communities (and we are increasingly economically challenged and well documented as the 3rd hardest hit area of the country by the recession). As we ready SWFL for the Aging Tsunami and Longevity Revolutions (I encourage you to Google these terms if you have never heard of them), we continue to address the economic downturns most significant impact on our seniors...the "newly hungry and/or newly poor". As these once self sufficient adults age into our community programs or slip below the poverty line for the first time in their lives, many have no idea how to even "be hungry or be poor". As a region our ideal is to create a community response to this unique population facing food insecurity by developing targeted programs to help our seniors and mobilize a community task force to face the bigger issues as we prepare for the "food fight" of their life.

A locally launched program named "Senior Food Bags" (started in May 2011 in response to the increasing issue of hunger in our community [the senior commodity program does not exist in our area]) was designed and morphed using the kid's school backpack program. Local groups collect enough foods/ funds to be able to deliver a one week supply of food to the door of 150 local home bound seniors once a month and we drop similar bags at local low income senior congregate dining cafes were 200+ seniors access the monthly food items (we target the 3rd week of each month since many seniors monies and SNAP run out before months end). We coordinate with local businesses, colleges and volunteer groups to conduct the food drives focusing on foods specific to seniors' unique dietary needs. This program is in direct response to the growing hunger & food insecurity our local senior population continues to struggle against. It has been successful in our community for a full year and the model has expanded to other brick & mortar food pantries delivering to senior housing complexes in surrounding counties.

After having the above project grow from 20 to 150 home bound seniors and then expand to include 200+ community mobile seniors in only four months we decided the need was larger than we first recognized and we held a Senior Hunger Summit (October 2011) where the community was invited to come and discuss the challenges and barriers facing the Aging Services and Emergency Food Systems providers in responding to the needs of hungry seniors. ThatSummitresulted in the identification of our ten most pressing items we felt our community needs to address to respond to the growing need. Those items empowered our community to form a Senior Hunger Task Force in SWFL. Spear headed by local aging services advocates, we are bringing the community together to create a media campaign and master plan for readying SWFL for the Graying of America and resolving the growing hunger/ food insecurity issues in our 50+ populations. (As of January 2012 we have 20+ agencies/ partners from a cross section of the community signed onto this initiative). The "Senior Hunger Task Force" (SHTF) has developed a localized Strategic Plan to address food insecurity in our local aging populations and has begun to leverage existing community resources (i.e., business, network of food pantries, faith groups, social service agencies and local government) to respond to the Senior Hunger issue. We hope our work today leads to a more integrated, well prepared and responsive emergency food provider and aging services system in place prior to the overwhelming food resources need that is on the horizon as the population shifts to 60+ for the next 50 years in our country.

Kristina is the Director of Hope Healthcare Services Lead Agency Programs in SWFL. She began her work in the senior nutrition field 11+ years ago overseeing Federal and State funded senior services programs and multiple levels of care services (that she continues to operate today). Kristina currently oversees Dining Cafes and large Meals on Wheels for Seniors Programs for multiple counties in SWFL. She is currently the FL state appointed Aging Services representative on the Florida Food & Nutrition Advisory Council; a member of the Board of Directors for Harry Chapin Food Bank and has chaired their Public Policy committee since 2010.

 

Tags: Senior Hunger , Florida
 

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