DC’s seniors often struggle to find food

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After brief prayers, a dozen men line up on a Wednesday afternoon to receive a box lunch outside DC’s Sacred Heart Shrine in Columbia Heights. Fifth in line, Kenneth Bristow, 62, an Air Force veteran and former concrete reduction worker, waited his turn.

Bristow had dinner which included a sandwich and chips. Then he hopped in his car and drove to a second pantry three miles away, just in time to secure two more meals for the week.

“It’s what you have to do to survive,” Bristow said. “I need more, but you can’t eat like you normally do, so you just have to do what you can.”

Bristow is among approximately 11,000 food-insecure seniors in DC — the city with the highest rate of seniors’ food insecurity in the nation, according to the nonprofit organization Feeding America. And while DC has launched several support programs to help them access healthy meals, some like Bristow have fallen through the cracks.

Defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, more than 7 million Americans age 60 or older experience food insecurity each year. A 2020 state-level analysis from Feeding America found that 13.1% of the city’s senior population is food insecure.

More than two years into a pandemic that disproportionately affected older adults, advocates and DC officials say residents continue to use nutrition programs more than they did before the pandemic. arrival of the virus.

DC’s Department of Aging and Community Living — the agency charged with overseeing the health, education and social services of older adults — says it delivered about 2 million meals last year, an increase of 163% compared to 2019.

DC’s grocery gap reflects city’s income divide

Older people experience food insecurity and are hungry for a range of complex and intersecting reasons, from poverty to access to transportation, education, food choices and eligibility for federal programs, advocates and officials said. According to a 2022 report by the DC Office of Planning’s Food Policy Division on food insecurity among seniors, there is insufficient outreach to attract new program enrollees.

Isolation — which restricts access to food — is a big factor, and DACL officials said more than half of DC residents over the age of 60 live alone, compared to just 27% in national scale.

Poverty is also exacerbating hunger in a city where 70% of seniors live on fixed incomes, said DC Hunger Solutions policy analyst Melissa Jensen. “With the rising cost of living in the district, their income doesn’t fluctuate with it, which translates to less money to spend on nutritious food,” she said.

Caroline Casey, senior nutrition program manager at Mary’s Center, which serves 600 DC seniors, said the rising cost of food is what her clients are most concerned about right now. “I’ve heard that over and over again,” Casey said.

Disparities affect older people differently depending on where they live.

While Ward 3, DC’s highest-income area, has more than 13 grocery stores, Ward 8, where Bristow lives, has just one, according to a 2021 DC Hunger Solutions grocery report.

Grants from the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund through the Mayor’s Office have enabled DC entrepreneurs to start local grocery stores and other food businesses in Wards 7 and 8, Jensen said. But Bristow said he only knows of the pantries that require crossing the Anacostia River.

Services that traditionally cater to the elderly and services that traditionally address hunger do not properly overlap, said Alexander Moore, director of development for DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit serving meals to residents in food insecurity situation in DC. Instead, these resources are spread across various city departments. , programs and non-profit organizations.

“We have so much expertise and great nonprofits here, so it’s a solvable problem,” Moore said. “But the problem has been getting solid data and breaking down the silos.”

“I’m so sick of hearing that hunger in old age is a hidden form of hunger. We don’t choose to watch it. We talked about the switches of violence. When it comes to the elderly, we need hunger switches,” he said.

There are more than 14 government-funded programs for people who need food, but many are unaware these services exist, advocates said. “The fact that we have this problem indicates that people are not accessing all of the programs they are eligible for,” Jensen said.

The data the DACL collects is limited to those already in the system, city officials said. It is difficult to obtain complete information on the people who need the services the most. Some food pantries that offer free food to the general public said they do not identify whether people in need belong to a specific group or not: they welcome everyone.

“We know we need to dig deeper into the data,” Jessica Smith, acting director of the DACL, said in an interview.

Smith said the agency is finalizing an agreement with a research organization to analyze agency data on the demographics of the population they serve and where they live.

“There’s national data that we can look at, but we really want to make sure we’re digging into the DC landscape,” Smith said.

Smith said the agency partners with nonprofits that are on the ground and encourages them to try innovative ways to reach people. In October, it will launch a grocery gift card pilot and provide iPads to isolated seniors so they can become more connected.

It also urges its association partners to innovate. Mary’s Center, for example, is already taking more aggressive approaches to reaching people, Casey said.

“We went straight into seniors’ buildings, hanging up flyers, talking to people. We hit libraries, bus stops, just types of areas where if someone isn’t tuned into another program, they could still see us or hear about us,” she said.

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In 2021, six DC Council members introduced legislation to address this issue in the No Senior Hungry Omnibus Amendment Act of 2021. The bill proposes to establish an Interagency Food Insecurity Task Force comprised of service providers non-governmental and senior citizens to advise the mayor. It would also create a food security plan for seniors and push DACL to reach more seniors.

The reporting requirements in the bill would also give district leaders a better idea of ​​the scope of the problem.

Kyle Swenson contributed to this report.

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