Published December 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times
Especially during the holiday festivities this week the plight of Rhode Island’s hungry seniors in Providence’s West End Community and throughout the Ocean State, may have remained hidden to many Rhode Islanders, especially at Christmas Dinner, who gathered with families and friends to eat turkey, ham, the fixings, topped off with delicious pastries, and even pies.
But with the funding support of AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger, AARP Rhode Island officially launches its Hungry in the West End investigative web report next week, to ratchet up the public’s awareness that seniors do go hungry every day in this Providence neighborhood and throughout Rhode Island’s 39 Cities and Towns.
Executive Director, Kathleen S. Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, notes that, according the USDA statistics, 67,000 Rhode Island households are considered “food insecure,” which means families do not always have the financial ability to purchase adequate food. “Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of Rhode Island households,” she adds, “receive SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits.
Targeting the West End of Providence
According to Connell, the West End of Providence is the city’s — and the state’s – most economically challenged community. The unemployment rate among its largely Hispanic population exceeds 20 percent, more than double the state average, she says.
Connell adds that hidden in the West End are the “elderly hungry,” whose “food insecurity” is reflected in the number of people who must rely on the federal SNAP program, Meals on Wheels, congregate meals sites at senior centers and neighborhood food pantries to eat.
To get the story out about Senior hunger, former journalist and now AARP Rhode Island’s Director of Communications, John Martin, worked closely with former Providence Journal reporter, Jody McPhillips to investigate and put this issue on the radar screen of the general public as well as the Rhode Island General Assembly and state policy makers.
One disturbing fact came to light during Martin and McPhillips’ interviews, is that resources to relieve hunger are “stretched thin. Federal and state funding to end hunger have not kept pace with the problem. For instance, the Rhode Island General Assembly funding for Meals on Wheels is below funding levels of four years ago, before the nation’s worst recession began.
The Web-based reports, to premiere on Friday, January 4, 2013 at http://www.aarp.org/ri, clearly showcase this daunting domestic issue. What you will see are McPhillips’s eight separate stories, added one per day, many parts of which are supplemented by links to Martin’s videos. They range from extended interviews with McPhillips’s sources, to vignettes shot on various locations, including at the Rhode Island Food Bank, with a Meals on Wheels driver, at food pantries and senior centers, and at the Sodexo family food weekend backpacks program. Also, Martin has put together an overarching video in documentary form that will be posted on the site in segments ranging from four to five minutes each.
Before next week’s premiere you can watch a video preview of this project at – the Web site listed above.
Hunger, One of America’s Biggest Domestic Issues
Connell says that “Hunger and goes hand in hand with a host of serious health consequences – including diabetes, depression, even malnutrition. These are big issues that America faces today. It’s not just a ‘senior problem,’ it’s a societal problem, too. As someone has posted on our Facebook page, senior hunger is simply a disgrace.
“One of our conclusions [noted in the Web-based reports] is that that a lot is being done to help address senior hunger. But federal and state money is not a one-sized fits all solution. For the truly isolated seniors – especially those with disabilities and health issues — well-stocked food pantries may not be a practical resource,” noted Connell.
“We think people who read and watch Hungry in the West End will reach their own conclusions about how we tackle this on a one-to-one basis. It’s a call to action for people to be more aware of senior hunger and to reach out personally to those who might need help,” says Connell.
Connell asks: “Is there someone you can check on? Can you offer someone a ride to the supermarket when you go shopping? Or offer to pick something up? Can you visit a food pantry on their behalf? Perhaps you can ask if they would like some help in signing up for Meals on Wheels or applying for SNAP.”
Connell even knows of a group in one Rhode Island community where “volunteering” means preparing an extra meal each week for someone in need.
For AARP Rhode Island’s John Martin, “I can only say it has been a privilege to become better educated about senior hunger in Rhode Island. Jody and I met scores of people making a difference. But we also saw the great need that is out there. Each step of the way, however, we kept questioning who we were missing. The sad fact is that isolated seniors – by definition – can be all but invisible. In fact, one person said that first contact with some hungry and suffering seniors is a response to a 911 call.
“A lot of talk about hunger is focused on people out of work who are trying to feed their families,” says Martin. But this project brings the issue of senior hunger to the forefront — a problem that may not change much even if the economy makes a healthy rebound, he believes.
Martin states, “It’s not as if a stronger economy means isolated seniors on fixed incomes are going to have more money to spend on utilities, prescription medicines and groceries. And it has always been true that when seniors are forced to choose among those three expenses, groceries likely will be last on the list.”
Aptly put, the problem seems simple but not the solutions, so says McPhillips in her first Web report.
Luz Navarro, a diabetic with part of her left foot amputated, has been on dialysis for four years. The 62-year-old former insurance agent is now housebound, living with her cat. The independently-minded Navarro, can barely stand to cook at the stove and must now rely on Meals on Wheels, delivering her lunch five times a week.
McPhillips illustrates how difficult it is for older person’s to get enough to eat. Navarro, like many of the State’s elderly who are homebound, can’t drive to get to the market, or to a food pantry when money is tight. Nor can she walk to a Senior Center to have lunch and socialize with others.
As McPhillips quipps, “while pundits debate,” Mrs. Navarro needs to eat. While some in Congress denounce the social safety net for creating a culture of dependency, others call for funding to provide food for the needy even with a huge federal deficit.
Senior Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) makes an appearance, calling for the continuation of funding to the state’s SNAP program to feed the growing number of hungry.
Also, Catherine Taylor, director of the state Division of Elderly Affairs, says she sees a future looking darker rather than brighter, for Navarro, and other homebound seniors.
In an era of shrinking budgets, it’s becoming harder to do the things necessary to help older people stay in their homes for as long as possible, admits Taylor.
She warns that federal funding for food programs may be slashed as Congress is forced to rein in the nation’s huge deficit. Food and gas price increases will hit older person’s where it hurts, in their pocket books, predicts Taylor, making it more difficult for them to purchase groceries.
Hopefully, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, will get Taylor’s message at the conclusion of McPhillips’ fine investigative piece: “It’s up to us to picture the world we want to age in,” and to work to bring it about.”
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.