Seniors facing hunger see improved CalFresh, expanded local aid

More senior citizens are worrying about where their next meal will come from during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But a new policy, enacted earlier this month, will improve food access to hungry senior citizens in California at a time when many older people face increased barriers to food due to an economic downturn and public health concerns.

Food insecurity is on the rise for senior citizens; the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research says that nearly 40 percent of low-income Californians over the age of 60 are food insecure, which represents a 21 percent increase over the last 15 years. 

The new policy, which waives certain reporting requirements for senior citizens using food stamps (CalFresh), comes at a time when the program is receiving increased application volume due to the pandemic. 

“We estimate at California Food Policy Advocates that there could be a total of over one million households that will ultimately benefit from being enrolled through this simplified process,” said Jared Call, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates. 

Call said that the new policy means that seniors don’t need to complete the annual periodic report under the state's Elderly Simplified Application Project (ESAP). He said that eliminating this step will mean that fewer people will fall through the cracks.

“There are over half a million households that have been enrolled in CalFresh that are solely older adults, people aged 60 or older, and/or living with a disability, that can benefit from some of these policy options,” he said. “A lot of people have trouble completing that report….I've personally talked to a lot of older adults, who just find that process really stressful, even if they are able to complete it.”

Meal delivery services like Meals on Wheels and Mercy Brown Bag in Oakland are stepping in to meet increased demand for food at no or low cost to seniors during the pandemic, with care and human connection. 

The services and the food they provide are sometimes life-saving. 

Leia Amidon of San Francisco lives alone and has limited mobility due to a disability she suffered after getting into a severe accident. She receives disability benefits, which for her, and many other seniors, are barely enough to make ends meet. 

“After I pay my rent and utilities, I have about $40 to $60 a month,” Amidon said. “And that’s the margin I live on.”

For seniors living on fixed incomes, including Social Security, the rising cost of living in the Bay Area often poses an insurmountable barrier to food security if they can’t access assistance.

Amidon credits a social worker connecting her to Meals on Wheels with saving her life and her sanity.

“It’s very obvious to me that I probably would have literally starved—being disabled and not being able to walk for a long time, and not being able to get out of the house on my own,” she said.

Amidon said that during a period where she went in and out of the hospital often, she would rely on those stays for hospital-provided sustenance, and to regain weight she lost with her at-home diet of rice, oatmeal and large amounts of water to fill her stomach. 

Krista Lucchesi, program director of the Mercy Brown Bag program, which delivers groceries to older adults, said demand for groceries has skyrocketed in recent months.

“Our phone has been ringing off the hook, as they say,” she said. “It's closer to 2,000 people that we've added to our twice monthly distributions.”

These new people include many older adults who had, and lost, a part time job, she said. Some new recipients also left their part time jobs due to safety concerns with the pandemic, and now don’t have enough money for food. 

“The other piece is that a lot of people were getting by with help from their families, but because either their families are going through struggles with unemployment, and all the other financial things, or their families are nervous to come because they're out in the communities, and they don't want to infect their parents,” she said. 

Madlynn Johnson, a senior who lives in Oakland, had difficulty procuring enough food when she experienced homelessness three years ago, but also during the time after, when she secured stable housing, and was back on her feet. She said that having reliable food through the Mercy Brown Bag program has been a “godsend” during the pandemic. 

“It felt special to go out and have your food actually brought to your door,” Johnson said. 

She said that getting food from volunteers makes her feel taken care of, and that she values the interactions she has with both volunteers and neighbors when she gets a delivery.

“It gives me a reason to get up in the morning and get involved,” she said. “I would go out and actually get the items from the van. And I would interact with them, and I would interact with the other volunteers and many other residents that lived here.”

The structure of Mercy’s service has temporarily moved away from their former motto—“seniors helping seniors” during the pandemic. Lucchesi now relies on younger volunteers and corporate partners for assistance, since it’s not safe for older adults to gather to pack and distribute groceries as they once did.

This change also means that the social component of the program has dissolved. To foster community, and to make sure people receiving groceries feel supported, Mercy has partnered with HandsOn Bay Area to run a phone program. Volunteers now regularly call up grocery recipients to check in and chat, or discuss anything they may need. 

Louise Martinez, who enrolled in March for the Mercy deliveries, said that the quality of food delivered to her is healthier than the food she could afford to buy on social security.

“My money doesn’t go very far,” she lamented. 

Virginia Loring, who is 92 and lives in Oakland, said that having food delivered is very important to her because she isn’t able to leave her house normally, and especially not during the pandemic. She said that she often agonizes over how she will make ends meet with her income.

“The depression sets in,” Loring said. “Especially at my age. How are things going to be? Am I going to meet the bills? Because my income is so slow.”