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For Low-Income Older Adults, Some Food Access Solutions Go Further Than Others

About a year ago, 60-year-old Geneva Clarkson was at the doctor’s office when her stomach gurgled loudly. Clarkson's doctor asked why.

“I’m like, ‘Well, I only ate once today,’” Clarkson said. “And he's like, ‘Does that happen often?’”

Clarkson said yes, she regularly ate only one meal a day. She has congestive heart failure, which is best managed with a healthy diet low in sodium. She didn’t want to touch the high-sodium canned goods that she could get from a food pantry. One healthy meal a day is all she can afford.

“He looked at me eye-to-eye and said, ‘Geneva, you cannot do that to yourself. It’s unhealthy, too, and it’s a wear on your heart,’” Clarkson said. “Sometimes you have to make exceptions and eat sodium-based foods when you don’t want to.”

Now, after Clarkson’s $22 in food stamps and Social Security Disability runs out toward the end of each month and she can no longer afford fresh produce and proteins, she gives in and eats the canned vegetables and meats.

Living in an apartment building for low-income seniors in NuLu, amid all the development in the neighborhood and coupled with the recent closure of several grocery stores, Clarkson said she feels like she and other older adults struggling with food insecurity have been forgotten.

“Countless times my doctor has said, “OK, it will be good if we can get the weight down a little bit,’ and I say, ‘I’m not trying to sound mean, but in my income bracket and in my neighborhood it’s next to impossible to do,’” Clarkson said.

Her neighborhood is pushing forward with new restaurants and amenities, but she doesn't see the same progress for people like her. But, she wants her daughters to know she’s doing all she can to survive today, including eating unhealthily just to stay alive, even if that means shortening her life-span.

After seeing residents like Clarkson struggle with food access issues, Stella Hill, the service coordinator for Clarkson’s apartment building, thought she had found a solution. She arranged deliveries of monthly boxes of cheese, cereal, milk, canned vegetables, peanut butter and juice from local food bank Dare to Care.

Hill’s job is partially to check in on the residents to make sure they’re not isolated and that they have what they need, including food. She’d noticed many residents were sometimes rationing food, and wanted to do something about it. Older adults can get food at local food banks and soup kitchens. But many of her residents are less mobile and can’t make the trek there and back with heavy and bulky food items.

“There may be something, even if it’s a jar of peanut butter, that may be lifesaving to somebody,” Hill said of the box deliveries.

Hill had high hopes for the new delivered boxes, which is part of a federally-funded commodity surplus food program. The federal government sends the food to Dare to Care, which then distributes these boxes to about 5,800 seniors in the Louisville area.

But as Hill soon found out, just providing food didn’t quite fix the problem for residents like Clarkson.

“People are grateful that we’re getting them and they’re just kind of picking off what they can eat, but we have several people here in this building who have real health issues,” Hill said. “It’s not really nutritious, but you know, it’s food. It’s something that they will not have to worry about starving.”

Brian Riendeau, the executive director of Dare to Care, said most of the 270 partner agencies that distribute the food out of brick & mortar locations also get healthy fresh produce, frozen meat and dairy items. The federal commodities box is meant to be a supplement.

“We recognize that the items in that box are not what Dare to Care would prefer to distribute, but it's what we get from the government,” Riendeau said. “It's not intended to meet all the dietary needs of the seniors.”

And getting a monthly box of canned food also didn’t help address another problem Hill was seeing in her residents: a lack of social engagement.

Social Isolation

Geneva Clarkson says she’s really trying to live a long life — she has three daughters that bring her joy and a brother that takes her to the grocery store once a month. But sometimes the constant barriers to being healthy — the lack of grocery stores in her area, her problems with mobility, her low income — it all gets to her.

“Sometimes it brings me to tears, and I’m trying not to choke up now, but sometimes it is so depressing to the point of — I do isolate myself,” Clarkson said. “I’m like, I’m not going to answer the phone, because don’t nobody know what I’m going through right now.”

Studies have shown social isolation is a big factor in older adults' health and longevity. Stella Hill knows this, so she makes weekly rounds on residents to check on them. But Hill dreams of a situation that could address both her residents’ nutrition and social challenges: a place where residents could congregate around a daily breakfast or lunch.

“We’ve even talked about if we could get somebody to come in and cook because we have a full kitchen here. People could come down and get the meals,” Hill said. “Or even have them delivered here for everybody.”

There’s another program Dare to Care is currently fundraising for that could fulfill that dream. Riendeau said that in early 2020 if fundraising goes as planned, Dare to Care is going to pilot a meal delivery project for a few senior living facilities.

“This is a pretty exciting way of addressing both the nutrition aspect as well as the social isolation aspect,” Riendeau said.

The only issue, he said, would be in scaling the project to include all the senior living facilities that might want the program. The federal government doesn’t pay food banks for delivered meals, but Riendeau said he’s working with Kentucky's congressional delegation to change that.

“There's no reimbursement for that type of feeding, even though everybody recognizes the huge issue that's facing us and the benefits of providing these meals in a congregant setting," he said.

Programs like Meals on Wheels only fill some of the need. Older adults are only eligible if they’re home-bound and can’t cook or shop. Meals are also delivered to individual homes and not in group settings. Clarkson is trying to prevent herself from getting to that point — she’s worked hard on her diet and has stayed out of the hospital for the past two years. There’s a chance some of the Dare to Care programs could help her in that prevention.

This is the second part of a two-part series on the health implications of food insecurity or low-income seniors. Read the first part here.

This story was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and AARP.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.