As Maine’s population ages, understanding and addressing the needs of older adults becomes increasingly imperative. Seniors face a number of challenges, including obtaining enough food to be considered food secure.

In 2013, 5.4 million seniors in America over the age of 60 were food insecure. In Maine, 23 percent of seniors experience marginal, low or very low food security. Seniors may have difficulty obtaining food because of mobility constraints, issues with transportation or limited income. These same obstacles often leave food-insecure seniors socially isolated, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.

Volunteers at the Orono Community Garden, or OCG, work to combat these challenges by donating produce from the garden to area seniors. In my sociology honors thesis research at the University of Maine, I analyze how food from the OCG impacts seniors’ food security and feelings of social isolation. My data show that this local, volunteer-run community garden has a positive impact, not only on the seniors receiving the produce but also on the volunteers who harvest and deliver it.

Although none of the participants in my study self-reported currently experiencing food insecurity themselves, many do rely on multiple food relief programs offered in the area. This suggests that programs designed to reduce food insecurity are indeed working to prevent seniors from worrying about regular access to food. In particular, these programs increase access to healthy, high-quality food.

Participants in my study reported that the garden enables them to eat vegetables they otherwise could not afford. One said, “I have fresh vegetables [during the garden season] that I can’t afford [normally].” Another said, “This is my vegetable-eating period, and it doesn’t last long enough. Gosh, it is wonderful.” And one participant noted, “My doctor asked me to please continue eating veggies, which can be very expensive at the store.” These responses indicate that the garden does, indeed, positively impact seniors’ access to fresh produce and nutrition.

Food is an important aspect of the garden, but it isn’t the only thing the garden provides. When asked what they would miss the most if the garden program ended, more than half of the respondents cited their interactions with volunteers or some combination of the social interactions provided along with the food. As one senior put it, “The people who bring the food are friendly, and you feel so proud to live in Orono with such caring people.”

For volunteers, the interactions with seniors also have a positive impact. One said, “It’s been the personal thing that’s ended up being the most important. Making connections with people … making these connections you didn’t expect to make is probably the one thing that I’ll always look back on with great fondness.”

The garden also has led to social interaction among seniors and their neighbors. Through these informal exchanges, the garden fosters a shared experience that may build a stronger sense of community among the residents who receive vegetables. More than half of the seniors I interviewed reported discussing the garden with their neighbors. Such interactions included discussing which foods the seniors enjoyed and swapping vegetables with each other. Seniors talked with each other to see what vegetables they could trade. One senior said, “There’s a lady here that gets some of that stuff and she doesn’t care for the greens. … I told her, ‘Don’t you dare throw them out,’ so she brings them to me and I froze some of them last year.”

The Orono Community Garden isn’t the only organization working to increase food security and decrease social isolation for area seniors. The Parker Dining Program, operated by the Orono Senior Center, offers home-delivered lunches to seniors five days per week and the Food Pals program in Orono provides a home-delivered meal to seniors living in subsidized housing once per month during the school year. Most recently, University of Maine professor Kelley Strout began a program in Brewer that gives seniors the opportunity to grow their own vegetables.

These and other similar programs are critical to the health and well-being of our seniors and of our communities at large. Community gardens in particular have been shown to have a number of positive benefits, including affordable and accessible fresh produce, learning experiences, community building opportunities, increased civic pride and democratic participation and increased social support. Recipients of the Orono Community Garden certainly benefit from the program, but I also learned that the garden’s harvest extends beyond the vegetables picked; garden volunteers and the community at large benefit from a garden that provides access to healthy food and nurtures healthy social interactions.

Sarah Mullis graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maine in May with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in earth sciences. She was a fellow in the Honors College’s Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative in 2015. Amy Blackstone, Mark Haggerty, John Jemison and Melissa Ladenheim are University of Maine faculty working on the food system who contributed to this OpEd. Blackstone is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.