Senior Hunger

Betty Green lives in downtown Athens-Clarke County and is 72 years old. Ms. Green has been recently diagnosed with Diabetes and needs access to healthy, wholesome food more than ever. Ms. Green’s poverty-like circumstances and financial burdens prevent her from purchasing and preparing food for herself. 

Food insecurity is an urgent health problem for senior citizens in Athens–Clarke County. Ms. Green is part of a large group of seniors who are not able to receive food assistance through programs such as Meals on Wheels (MOW).  The demand for home delivered meals in Athens is not being met.

“Not enough is being done to fix the problem of food insecurity in Athens. There are waiting lists at many senior centers where the meals are distributed in Georgia,” says Dr. Mary Ann Johnson, professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA. “There are real costs associated with home delivered meals, including the cost of the food and in some cases transportation for the meals. Food costs have been increasing in recent years. The Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA) usually has enough volunteer drivers, but they are struggling to raise enough money to hire drivers because they don’t have enough volunteers.”

Community characteristics such as low income, no education, minority status and the unavailability to prepare and access food are the leading causes for food insecurity for senior citizens such as Ms. Green.

According to the ACCA, Georgia has the 11th fastest growing population of older adults in the country. Georgia also has the 7th highest prevalence of diabetes among older people. Among the major challenges related to aging and chronic diseases are controlling health care costs, maintaining independence, and enhancing quality of life through improved lifestyles and chronic disease management.

The ACCA also says that given the current harsh economic conditions, many older Georgians are having a difficult time making ends meet. For the first time in more than 30 years, there is not expected to be a cost of living increase in Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits. Coupled with likely increases in Part D of Medicare (prescription drug coverage), which is deducted from monthly benefits, many low income older Georgians, like Ms. Green, will have less to meet their nutritional needs.

Food Insecurity according to the USDA definition is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited, or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

According to the Food Bank of North East Georgia, In America, over 12 million households were food insecure during 2009. 12.9% of Georgia’s population was food insecure and 3.5% suffered from hunger throughout the year. Georgia’s population, according to 2009 census data, is 9,072,576 people. Of these, 1,206,652 live below the poverty threshold–or 13.3%. Clarke County has the highest poverty rate of all the 14 counties within the Food Bank’s service area. One out of seven senior citizens living in poverty in Northeast Georgia reside in Athens-Clarke County.

Meals on Wheels serves a very vulnerable population of older people who have a higher prevalence of health problems than the general population of older adults. National studies show that about one half of the foods and nutrients consumed by people in MOW are coming from the single meal provided each day. The home delivered meals provided through MOW provide a very important and substantial source of nutrition for vulnerable older adults.

Meal delivery programs are hurting and waiting lists have gotten longer because funds are needed. Each week seniors, like Ms. Green, who live alone, go without dinner or lunch two to three times each week.

“In the past year, I have wanted to apply for food stamps, but found the process too difficult,” says Ms. Green. UGA, the GA Division of Aging Services and the Aging Services Network perform a lot of research on food insecurity in older Georgians. Their studies show that transportation issues, paperwork and qualification standards have made access to food stamps a challenge for many residents in Athens-Clarke County. Nationally, participation in the Food Stamp program by elderly people is only at 32% of those eligible. By contrast, in Georgia the food stamp participation rate among seniors is only 7%.

“This is a very difficult problem Athens is dealing with,” says Dr. Johnson. “In the past, The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia (FBNG), has had programs for older adults in need of food but they are now lacking volunteers. There are other food banks and food pantries in our community that can help. Some churches may have programs and often families and neighbors might be able to help. But the need is great and the resources are not there to help the elderly.”

Dr. Jung Sun Lee, another professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA has been collaborating with the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Aging Services to document the unmet need for congregate meals and home-delivered meal (HDM) programs among older Georgians. A total of 3,806 older Georgians requested HDM over the 19-week period between July and early November 2009. Only 1,210 of them (32%) received the meals and the remaining 68% were on program waitlists. Those on the waiting lists had poorer socioeconomic and nutritional health status than the participants at the time when they requested HDM services.

“There is a critical unmet need for HDM in Athens-Clarke County, a program that is of even greater importance to high risk seniors during an economic recession,” says Dr. Lee.

 The efforts made to try and diminish food insecurity among the elderly in Athens are not great enough to fix the problem. According to the Georgia Gerontology Society, Georgia must plan to realize future savings through proven prevention practices. Budget cuts are taking apart prevention programs and shredding lifelines to older Georgians including: meals, respite care, adult day care and access to prescription drug resources. Due to skyrocketing costs, Georgia must budget to meet the essential needs of vulnerable older adults on fixed incomes. The rising costs of fuel, food and basic energy needs are limiting services to the elderly, particularly the homebound. Fewer volunteers deliver meals when more people are seeking food. Housing and financial assistance and agencies are unable to serve more people with less money.

“Major federal programs could provide needed nutritional benefits for our senior citizens,” says Jennie Desse, Executive Director of the ACCA. “Over the last decade, 19 states have chosen to conduct demonstrations to make it easier for the elderly to receive Food Stamp benefits by reengineering the application process and eliminating the need to go to the local food stamp office. Our hope is to get Athens-Clarke County to jump on this bandwagon.”

“Moving forward in 2010, ACCA will begin offering many new classes on health and wellness. Working with our community partners, we will focus on nutrition and meal preparation… and financial health and exercise,” says Desse. “We hope that these small steps will help educate so that we can try to prevent hunger and disease among the elderly in Athens.”

A partnership was created among the Division of Aging Services, Division of Public Health, Diabetes Association of Atlanta, Diabetes Technologies, Inc., University of Georgia and the Aging Services Network to begin to address some of these challenges. Outcomes of the partnership include the website “Live Well Age Well” (www.livewellagewell.info) and a Community Intervention called “Seniors Taking Charge!”  The website provides information on healthy living for people aged 50 and older and their families and caregivers.

The goal of the community intervention is to improve physical activity, nutrition, and diabetes self-management skills. Among those with diabetes (45% of the participants), the diabetes intervention led to many improvements in nutrition, physical activity, and diabetes self-management. “It is our ultimate goal to educate those with health issues such as Ms. Green so that they can learn to how to take care of themselves in a time when funds and volunteers are lacking,” says Dr. Johnson.

“Community and university partnerships are vital for successful development, implementation, and evaluation of evidence-based health promotion programs. Communities can identify the real needs of real people, while universities can provide expertise in research and evaluation techniques,” says Dr. Lee. “Our department values our collaboration with the Division of Aging Services and the Aging Network, and looks forward to working together to further improve the well being of our oldest citizens.”

Program planners, policy makers, members of Georgia’s aging network, and interested citizens wishing to serve and support the older adult community in Athens, can help create new avenues and partnerships to better support and assist this growing population of senior citizens.

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