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Aging advocates: Too many Georgia seniors are going hungry

One in six Georgia seniors face the threat of hunger, and that’s too many, say aging advocates who plan to tackle the issue at the first statewide Senior Hunger Summit, to be held at Stone Mountain later this month.

Georgia ranks ninth nationally in senior hunger, and advocates want a comprehensive plan to get the state out of the top 10 ranking.

“This is not a top 10 list we want to be part of,” said Gwenyth Johnson, manager of the Livable Communities Section for the Georgia Department of Human Services’ Division of Aging Services.

This is an all-hands-on-deck task, with legislators, nonprofits, faith community leaders, health providers, grocers and all others interested in ensuring that seniors have enough to eat urged to take part in the planning.

Johnson said participants will talk about the barriers to food access and how to fix the problem, with the goal of putting initiatives in place by 2018.

Food insecurity among seniors is a growing concern nationwide. The number of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger increased by 47 percent from 2001 to 2014, according to the State of Senior Hunger in America 2014 report by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.

Johnson said at the state level, the issue is complex, with food access problems in both rural and urban areas. There are food deserts where healthy produce and other nutritious items are not available. Many rural counties are losing grocery stores, so the only place seniors can purchase food is at a convenience store, Johnson said.

“They can get calories, but not the nutrients that they need,” she said.

Most communities have waiting lists for Meals on Wheels, a home-delivery hot meal service for seniors. The program needs more funding at all levels, said Kathy Floyd, executive director for the Georgia Council on Aging.

“It’s important for us that there be no people on the wait list for meals,” she said.

Floyd also said too few seniors receive food stamps when they qualify for the assistance. It’s a generation where many believe taking government help is shameful. “Some would rather starve than take advantage of it,” she said.

Tracina Green, Senior Program specialist with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, who views the problem from the front ranks, says a lack of transportation and the expense of nutritious foods are primary factors contributing to senior hunger in the metro area and North Georgia.

“Seniors can’t drive, so they have to pay someone to take them to a grocery store. And the produce they should be eating is too expensive. They can’t afford it,” she said.

The nonprofit operates a federal program where older adults are given supplemental nonperishable commodities like rice and peanut butter, and another federal program where they receive two $10 vouchers each month to purchase produce at local farmers markets. The food bank works with partner agencies for food distribution, and seniors can contact or call 404-892-3333, ext. 2400, to find a food pantry or service agency near them.

In addition, the food bank buys 80,000 pounds of produce each month, which is distributed to 16,000 seniors throughout metro Atlanta and North Georgia. Seniors can get as much of the produce as they’d like.

These seniors are also invited to the food bank twice a month for a cooking demonstration preparing simple recipes from the commodities and produce. Transportation is provided.

“Our goal is to help seniors eat better and get healthy,” Green said.

Through the commodities and the produce programs, the Atlanta Community Food Bank provided 1.7 million meals to seniors during the last fiscal year, Green said.

It’s going to take community initiatives like these to tackle food insecurity, aging advocates say. Johnson said it can be done, if everyone pitches in to help.

“This is something I truly believe we can work on from the community level,” she said. “There is a way for everybody in the state to be part of the solution.”

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