DC seniors often struggle to find food

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After brief prayers, a dozen men line up on a Wednesday afternoon to receive a dinner box outside of DC’s Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Columbia Heights. Fifth in line, Kenneth Bristow, 62, an Air Force veteran and former concrete abatement worker, waited for his turn.

Bristow grabbed a dinner that included a sandwich and potato chips. Then he hopped in his car and drove to a second food pantry three miles away, just on time to secure two more meals for the week.

“This is what you have to do to survive,” said Bristow. “I need more, but you can’t eat like you normally do, so you have to just do what you can.”

Bristow is among the around 11,000 older adults who are food-insecure in DC — the city with the highest rate of senior food insecurity in the country, according to the nonprofit Feeding America. And while DC has launched several supporting programs to help them access healthy meals, some like Bristow have fallen through the cracks.

Defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, more than 7 million Americans 60 or older experience food insecurity every year. A 2020 state-level analysis from Feeding America found that 13.1 percent of the senior population in the city is food insecure.

More than two years into a pandemic that disproportionately affected seniors, DC advocates and officials said residents continue to use nutrition programs more than they than did before the virus arrived.

DC’s Department of Aging and Community Living — the agency in charge of monitoring seniors’ health, education and social services — says it delivered around 2 million meals last year, a 163 percent increase over 2019.

DC’s grocery gap reflects city’s income divide

Seniors experience food insecurity and hunger for a complex and intersecting range of reasons, from poverty, access to transportation, education, food choices and eligibility for federal programs, advocates and officials said. According to a 2022 DC Office of Planning Food Policy Division report about seniors’ food insecurity, the outreach to attract new enrollees to the programs is insufficient.

Isolation — which restricts access to food — is a big factor, and DACL officials said more than half of DC residents over 60 live alone, compared to just 27 percent nationally.

Poverty also exacerbates hunger in a city where 70 percent of seniors live on a fixed income, said DC Hunger Solutions Policy Analyst Melissa Jensen. “With a rising cost of living in the District, their incomes do not fluctuate with that, resulting in less money to spend on nutritious food,” she said.

Caroline Casey, Program Manager of Senior Nutrition at Mary’s Center, which serves 600 seniors in DC, said the rising cost of food is what concerns her clients the most now. “I have heard that time and time and time again,” said Casey.

Disparities affect seniors differently depending on where they live.

While Ward 3, the highest income region of DC, has more than 13 grocery stores, Ward 8, where Bristow lives, has only one, a 2021 DC Hunger Solutions grocery store report found.

Neighborhood Prosperity Fund grants through the mayor’s office has allowed DC entrepreneurs to start locally owned grocery and other foods businesses in Wards 7 and 8, Jensen said. But Bristow said he knew only about food pantries that require crossing the Anacostia river.

Services that traditionally address seniors and services that traditionally address hunger are not properly intersecting, said Alexander Moore, the chief development officer at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization serving meals to food insecure residents in DC Instead, those resources are spread across various city departments , programs, and nonprofits.

“We have so much expertise and great nonprofits here, so this is a solvable problem,” Moore said. “But the issue has been getting solid data and knocking down the silos.”

“I’m so tired of hearing about senior hunger being a hidden form of hunger. We’re not choosing to look at it. We have talked about violence interrupters. When it comes to seniors, we need hunger interrupters,” he said.

There are more than 14 government-funded programs for people who need food, but many don’t know these services exist, advocates said. “The fact that we have this problem indicates that people are not accessing all those programs that they qualify for,” said Jensen.

The data the DACL collects is limited to those who are already in the system, city officials said. It’s hard to get comprehensive information about people who are most in need of services. Some food pantries that offer free food to the general public said they don’t identify whether those in need are from a specific group or not: They welcome everybody.

“We know that we need to take a deeper look at the data,” DACL Interim Director Jessica Smith said in an interview.

Smith said the agency is finalizing an agreement with a research organization to analyze the agency’s data about the demographics of the population they serve and where they live.

“There’s national data that we can look at, but we really want to ensure that we’re digging into the DC landscape,” said Smith.

Smith said the agency is partnering with nonprofits that are on the ground and is encouraging them to try innovative ways to reach people. In October, it will launch a grocery gift card pilot, and it will provide iPads to isolated seniors so they can become more connected.

It also urges its nonprofit partners to innovate. Mary’s Center, for instance, is already taking more aggressive approaches to reach people, Casey said.

“We’ve gone directly to senior buildings, hang fliers, talk to people. We’ve reached out to libraries, bus stops, just kind of areas where if someone’s not plugged into another program, they still might see us or hear about us,” she said.

First new supermarket breaks ground east of Anacostia in more than a decade

In 2021, six DC Council members introduced legislation to address this issue in the No Senior Hungry Omnibus Amendment Act of 2021. The bill proposes creating an Interagency Senior Food Insecurity Taskforce made up of nongovernmental service providers and seniors to advise the mayor. It would also create a Senior Food Security Plan and push DACL to reach more seniors.

The reporting requirements in the bill would also give District leaders a better idea of ​​the problem’s scope.

Kyle Swenson contributed to this report.

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