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Aging and hungry: San Diego nonprofits combat food insecurity crisis among older adults

Sitting around a table at the La Mesa Adult Enrichment Center, a group of ladies laughs while dining on a lunch of chicken cacciatore when one woman — Magi Meyer, a 74-year-old San Diego resident — quips that the dish needs more tomatoes.

Regardless of whether the dish served at last Tuesday's lunch was lacking in tomatoes, there is much the women are all grateful for. Instead of sitting at home alone or eating at a fast food restaurant, they are enjoying a free, healthy meal with a side of friendship.

"It's much healthier and I don't have to eat alone," said Cheryl Astrada, 70, an El Cajon resident whose husband died in 1994. "(At home) it's kind of lonely: You just eat, there's no one to talk to."

The free lunch program at the La Mesa Adult Enrichment Center is a partnership with Serving Seniors that was reinstated earlier this month after a yearslong hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After filling out paperwork for the program, those residents 60 and older receive a free lunch at the site, as well as a meal that they can eat for breakfast the day after.

Aside from the nutritional benefits of the program, the free lunch and inexpensive activities at the center enrich the lives of the seniors who participate, said Morgan Furr, a part-time recreation leader at the center.

"It's more about getting the seniors out in the community to connect with other seniors," Furr said.

But for other lunchtime visitors to the center, the nutritional benefits are key.

For about a quarter of older adults in San Diego, having three meals a day is a luxury. When older adults are living on a tight budget, it may mean skipping doses of their prescription drugs, or going hungry for longer periods so other bills don't go unpaid.

What advocates had long called out as an issue became exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when older adults struggled to travel and most congregate meal programs shut down for safety.

Fluctuations in the economy during the pandemic also increased the cost of foods as the availability of certain staples dwindled. To help individuals and families, CalFresh temporarily increased its benefits for recipients. But those additional CalFresh food stamp benefits ended in April, while the price of many grocery staples remains high.

"The price of everything is going up except for our senior Social Security checks," said Anya Delacruz, ElderHelp associate executive director.

Food insecurity — a daily struggle marked by uncertain access to enough nutritious food to live a healthy and active lifestyle — is a harsh reality for many people.

The San Diego Hunger Coalition reports that 147,000 San Diegans age 60 and older — nearly a quarter of the demographic — do not have regular access to three nutritious meals per day.

California reports that among the households who receive food assistance, about a third are homes where at least one person is a senior or has a disability.

Aside from being able to financially access food, there are other reasons why a senior might not be eating enough.

Limited mobility and an inability to drive might hinder someone from getting to the grocery store, physical ailments might make standing at the stove to cook unfeasible, a limited retirement income might not cover steep increases in grocery prices. As people age, they often experience a decrease and deterioration of their taste buds, which the National Institute on Health reports can lead to older adults skipping the foods they need to stay healthy.

Dental problems or ill-fitting dentures can also hinder someone's ability to eat.

"With seniors it's not (always) a socioeconomic thing," said Brent Wakefield, president and CEO for Meals on Wheels San Diego County. "If you can't chew and swallow your food, you're starting off on the wrong foot."

Dining can also be a social activity, so older adults who live alone may feel lonely and have a decreased interest in food.

Because there are so many reasons why older adults might not be eating enough, there is a varied, integrated support system to help seniors access food.

As of 2019, Californians who receive Social Security income can be eligible for CalFresh food benefits, as long as their gross annual income as a single person is $27,192 or less. If approved, recipients receive an electronic benefit transfer card with a monthly budget to purchase food from grocery stores and many farmers markets.

Through ElderHelp, those age 60 and older who are able to prepare food at home can enroll in two separate food assistance programs.

Through the grocery shopping program, ElderHelp volunteers drive seniors to the supermarket to buy food, which the client pays for on their own. The volunteers can help clients with limited vision to read labels, and can carry the groceries up and down stairs to help those with limited mobility.

ElderHelp's supplemental nutrition delivery program provides seniors with some basic groceries such as milk, bread and eggs twice a month to lesson the financial burden. They often have fresh produce as well, which is donated by ProduceGood, a local nonprofit that coordinates fruit and vegetable picking on private orchards with excess food.

Some clients, depending on their needs, may sign up for both ElderHelp programs.

"That is really evidently a cost-effective option for folks who are struggling to afford their own groceries. Because these deliveries are supplemental, they're not meant to carry anyone through two weeks," said Rebecca Pollard, programs innovation manager.

Local congregate lunch programs, like the one at the La Mesa Adult Enrichment Center, aim to reduce feelings of loneliness among older adults while providing nutritional meals to their clients.

"There's a huge advantage if a senior goes to a congregate dining site; you have this socialization, which helps with depression, which is one of those things that leads to the lack of appetite," Wakefield said. "(But) there are a lot of seniors in outlying areas that are really far from congregate dining. If you're 75, 85, then you're not going to drive 20 miles just to go have lunch; that may even be dangerous."

Older adults can also connect with services like Meals on Wheels of San Diego County, a nonprofit that delivers fully prepared meals to clients for $4 each. The nonprofit is expanding its capacity by building a new, centralized hub. Wakefield said the large kitchen space in the new facility will increase its annual output from about 624,000 meals annually to a million meals per year, eventually letting it scale production to 2 million.

In addition to the food deliveries, clients have a short visit with a volunteer, who can look for signs of distress or worsening health.

One client, Carlsbad resident Corinne Starkweather, 97, has received deliveries from Meals on Wheels for the past five years after volunteering for the nonprofit putting meals together. As she has gotten older, cooking has become increasingly difficult, so she is thankful for the nutritious meals.

"It's very difficult to try and do cooking when you're in your 90s," Starkweather said. "It's wonderful to have the meals all prepared and these lovely volunteers are such a beautiful part of this whole program. They're lovely people that check on you and they're just really very blessed people."

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