As we enter the most bountiful time of the year, take a moment and think about this question, which was passed on to me a few months ago: Is your grandmother hungry?
I’m not talking about Thanksgiving Day, when families gather, our splendid tables overflow and everyone eats well and plenty. I’m talking about all the other days of the year when we have no idea what our grandmothers — or any other elderly relatives and friends — are eating, or if they’re eating.
The Greatest Generation is also the Suffer In Silence Generation. Many of its members have survived past deprivation and would rather sup on a salamander than ask for help.
To some degree, that pride contributes to one in nine Oklahoma seniors being at risk for hunger. Seniors often must make difficult decisions between basic needs, Eileen Bradshaw, executive director of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, said in an interview a few months ago.
“No one is comfortable with the thought of seniors having to do without critical medication because they needed to purchase food,” Bradshaw said, “or doing without food to purchase medication.”
But those kinds of choices are made everyday — and we never know that seniors are suffering in silence. Social Security is the only source of income for one in three Oklahomans age 65 or older. On average, Oklahoma retirees receive about $1,206 a month from Social Security. Most of us could not begin to make ends meet on that amount of income.
For some lucky seniors on fixed incomes, a food bank program is helping.
Last year, 1,870 older Oklahomans in 14 counties of the 24 counties that the food bank serves were helped through the three-year-old Senior Servings Program. So far this year, there are 1,342 senior recipients being helped at 37 different sites in 14 counties.
Food bank partners — including low-income senior housing complexes, senior nutrition centers, churches or other congregate meal sites — are only too willing to act as the go-between, making sure seniors at the highest risk for hunger are served.
Senior Servings started with only 50 seniors at West Edison Plaza, a low-income apartment complex in west Tulsa, and grew quickly. With more donations from individuals, corporations and foundations, the food bank could serve an almost unlimited number of needy seniors. Unfortunately, there are limits to its resources.
Senior Servings tries to foster independence among its clients and preserve their dignity. Pre-packed bags of groceries, with shelf-stable items, are distributed to seniors twice a month, providing a protein, fruits, vegetables and some fresh produce and bakery goods.
“This is a supplement to their grocery budget,” says Bailey Moorhead, the food bank’s Senior Servings and SNAP Outreach coordinator.
Partner agencies, which know their clients well, have not encountered many clients who are too proud to accept the groceries, Moorhead said. It’s just the opposite; clients look forward to picking up their bags.
Unlike Meals on Wheels or other nonprofits that deliver meals to the elderly, disabled and shut-ins, Senior Servings does not make individual deliveries because it simply does not have the resources. Clients instead come to a site, which generally is a place where they live at or visit regularly.
“There’s a lot of people waiting to be served,” says Cindy Cummins, the food bank’s managing director of customer relations and capacity. “... I get calls from agencies asking to join the program. It’s sad when I have to tell them that there’s no room in the budget.”
In late August, the Wal-Mart Foundation contributed a $40,000 grant, providing a boost to the program.
There’s plenty of room for more help — something to consider during the holiday season.
The needs of clients do not necessarily increase during that season, but the food bank’s own needs do. This is the time of year that donors are most likely to think about giving. Those donations keep supplies flowing to food pantries and to programs such as Senior Servings year round.
Is your grandmother hungry? Maybe not, but 4 million seniors across the country are malnourished.
Your grandmother might not be hungry, but chances are she knows someone who is.