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Colorado's hidden hunger story: The elderly






How can communities make sure their older citizens are fed? Amplify messages about available food services, and slay the stigma against asking for help.
The United States may be among the world’s wealthiest nations, but that doesn’t guarantee some of its most vulnerable citizens — the elderly —  always have enough food to eat.

Recent reporting from the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and Feeding America found that 7.7 percent of seniors age 60 and older are “food insecure”’ meaning they don’t always know where their next meal will come from. It follows that roughly 1 in 8 older adults in Colorado suffer from food insecurity, according to Hunger Free Colorado.

Organizations such as these highlight the fact that although nationwide food insecurity has declined in the years following The Great Recession, for seniors, it remains a substantial problem.

Malnutrition among seniors in the U.S. is a hidden epidemic, according to Alliance for Aging Research. Meals on Wheels, run by the Volunteers of America, is one program that comes to the aid of Colorado's seniors. (Photo is from voacolorado.org)

“Despite an improving economy and financial markets, millions of seniors in the United States are going without enough food due to economic constraints,” James P. Ziliak and Craig Gundersen write in “The State of Senior Hunger in America 2016: An Annual Report,” which was released in May 2018. “Food insecurity among seniors in America is a continued challenge facing the nation.”

Retirement incomes fall short

Many seniors live on fixed incomes while the cost of living continues to rise. Consider that rent in the Denver Metropolitan area went up nearly 50 percent since 2010, according to the property management firm RealPage.com.

“There are a lot more people out there who don’t have retirement accounts or pensions than you may think,” says Laurie Walowitz, director of program services at The Action Center in Lakewood, a nonprofit organization that provides free food to Jefferson County residents. “There are a lot of (seniors) who still need to get money somehow, and the ability to earn decreases as you get older.”

Seniors also lived and worked through prosperous war-era economies, so they never imagined finding themselves in the position to need help covering basic necessities. Layer on such unexpected life events as medical crises or the call to raise a grandchild, and the budget that an older individual or couple once thought would support a comfortable retirement simply isn’t enough to cover basic necessities.

The Action Center provides a self-select food pantry that individuals can “shop” nine times a year. It also supports the government’s Commodities Supplemental Food Program for seniors, which is run by the U.S.D.A. and targets people age 60 and older whose income is roughly $1,300 a month or less.

With Double Up Food Bucks Colorado, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food assistance) will receive vouchers for up to an additional $20 in Colorado-grown fruits and vegetables. (Photo provided by the Valley Food Partnership.)

“We know there is a need,” Walowitz says, “so we’re trying to increase the number of seniors who come here” by revising The Action Center’s marketing strategy and reaching out directly to nearby senior living facilities.

Miles from a gallon of milk

The booming cost of living in the Denver area is but one of the barriers Colorado seniors face to accessing regular healthy meals. In rural communities such as Montrose, for instance, some seniors are socially isolated or lack adequate transportation to the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market, which may be many miles from home.

“Some people who are socially isolated choose that lifestyle,” says Eva Veitch, the Community Living Services director for the Region 10 Area on Aging (AAA). “But it puts them at greater risk of a lot of things,” including food insecurity and inadequate health care.

It’s not unusual for AAA staffers who deliver frozen meals to seniors in Montrose County to find these rural Coloradans living without barely a morsel of food in their kitchen. “They simply don’t have money to buy groceries at the end of the month,” she says.

Three out of five seniors who qualify for SNAP, or food stamps, do not participate, according to the National Council on Aging. Many people who work at food pantries like this one at The Action Center in Lakewood report the need to coax seniors away from a stigma about asking for help. (Photo provided by The Action Center)

According to July 2017 U.S. Census data, close to one and four residents of Montrose County is age 65 or older. The median household income there is about $44,000, and 16% of the county’s residents live in poverty.

“We have a big elderly population, and many are lower income,” says Valley Food Partnership Executive Director Abbie Brewer. Working on promotions for the healthy-eating program Double Up Food Bucks illuminated for her just how many older people in Montrose are struggling to cover medical expenses, care for children or ailing family members, or simply live too far from markets and grocery stores.

Even more than a lack of available resources for seniors — consider that there is an AAA office in every county nationwide — the larger challenge to serving struggling seniors revolves around advertising what’s available to them, and tackling stigmas surrounding asking for help.

“A lot of times, senior people don’t want to reach out,” says Eva Veitch with the Region 10 Area on Aging. “They’re embarrassed, or they just don’t have the cognitive ability.”

One initiative that successfully reached some of the seniors in and around Montrose involved partnering on outreach with the Valley Food Partnership, which runs the year-round Montrose Farmers Market and serves as a local administrator of the Double Up Food Bucks program. DUFB allows people who use the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes called “food stamps,” to get twice as much food when they spend the benefit on fresh, locally-produced fruits and vegetables.

The Montrose Farmers Market is one of several fresh produce outlets statewide that accepts Double Up Food Bucks. For a complete list of DUFD locations, visit https://doubleupcolorado.org/. (Photo provided by the Valley Food Partnership.)

Many resources are available throughout Colorado for seniors to receive regular healthy meals. Here are eight of them recommended by Hunger Free Colorado:

- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

- Child and Adult Care Food Program for Seniors (CACFP).

- Commodity Supplemental Food Program for Seniors (CSFP).

- The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

- Home-delivered meals (like Meals on Wheels).

- Congregate feeding programs (community meal sites).

- Adult day and residential care programs.

- Food banks and food pantries.

To reach the Hunger Free Colorado hotline, dial (855) 855-4626.

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime freelance journalist.

This is the final installment a collaborative editorial project between Confluence Denver and LiveWell Colorado. The six-part series examines barriers to healthy living in Colorado, and how communities are finding solutions.


 

Read more articles by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime cultural affairs journalist. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Lucky, Popular Mechanics, The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
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