Warehouse images at the Good Shepherd Food Bank distribution center

By Wanda Curtis

Approximately 5.3 million people 60 years of age and older in the U.S. experience food insecurity, according to feedingamerica.org. The nonprofit reports that poor health can be both a cause and also a consequence of food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

Many seniors face medical and mobility challenges which can become an obstacle to accessing nutritious food. Some seniors struggle to pay their bills and stay in good health while leaving on a fixed income. Former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murphy MD reported in the online article “Food Insecurity: A Public Health Issue” that food insecurity is “a national health problem and an underrecognized social determinant of health.”  

Murphy said that food insecurity places a heavy burden on society through health care and social costs. It may cause people to consume a nutrient-poor diet which can contribute to the development of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and other chronic conditions. In addition, he said that some people may postpone medical care to buy food which can lead to expensive hospitalizations.

Helping Seniors in Maine

Approximately 17,200 Mainers aged 65 years and older lived in food insecure households in 2019, according to Jessica Donahue, the director of marketing and communications for Good Shepherd Food Bank in Lewiston. Donahue referenced Feeding America’s statistics which showed that Maine has one of the highest rates of senior hunger in the nation. Many factors contribute to this, including lack of adequate economic resources, social isolation, health issues and functional impairments, and feelings of stigma, embarrassment and shame.

“These factors are especially important for seniors because they compound food insecurity and other issues,” said Donahue. “Lack of transportation and access to public transportation options can also be a barrier to using the charitable food network.”                                                                                                                                    

Many Resources Available

Though thousands of Maine seniors were identified as food insecure in 2019, the good news is that many resources are available for those who need food. Organizations in all 16 counties are partnering with the Good Shepherd Food Bank to meet the nutritional needs of Maine seniors, said Donahue.                         

“The mission of Good Shepherd Food Bank is to eliminate hunger in Maine by improving access to nutritious food to people in need, building strong community partnerships, and mobilizing the public in the fight to end hunger,” said Donahue. “The Food Bank distributes millions of pounds of food to local partner agencies that serve all 16 counties in Maine. These partners include food pantries, meal sites, shelters, senior centers, healthcare facilities and school programs. Together with this network, the Food Bank is finding new and effective ways to provide nourishing food and hope to our neighbors in need. Good Shepherd Food Bank is also working to find long-term solutions to hunger by engaging in advocacy, research and strategic initiatives to create a hunger-free Maine.”

Good Shepherd Food Bank opened a second distribution center in Hampden in 2019.  She said that strategically located facility allows them to distribute more food, more frequently and more efficiently to central, northern and Downeast Maine. Their goal is for everyone struggling with hunger to have access to the nutritious food they need to thrive, when and where they need it, by 2025.

“We are currently working with food donors, philanthropic supporters and local partners across the state to reduce the impact of hunger and make Maine a stronger, better place to work and live,” Donahue said.

Other encouraging news, said Donahue, is recent USDA data showing that food insecurity was not as bad as predicted during the 2020 pandemic due to expansions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and school nutrition programming. She said that their network of over 500 partners increased meal distribution by 16 percent during the Food Bank’s last fiscal year.

“The expansions of these programs meant that some Mainers were able to access healthy foods through their local grocery stores or schools instead of visiting their local pantry,” Donahue said.    

Community Health and Hunger Program                                                                              

In addition to distributing food to local food pantries, Good Shepherd distributes food to healthcare facilities through the Community Health and Hunger Program. Donahue explained that they provide training to healthcare partners who are interested in implementing Hunger Vital Signs Food Insecurity Screening questions during routine patient visits. She said Good Shepherd provides participating health care providers with pre-packed emergency food bags for immediate distribution to those patients identified as food insecure.                                                                       

“These bags provide two to three days of nutritious shelf-stable food to patients struggling to manage a chronic illness,” said Donahue. “Each healthcare partner is also provided with a list of local emergency food access points to offer to patients that screen positive for food insecurity. In addition, the Food Bank works closely with local partner agencies to make sure they have enough healthy food on hand to serve community members who are referred there from healthcare partners.” 

Any senior who needs food should talk with their local primary care office to assist them in locating food in their area. They may refer them to a social worker who can assist them in locating programs for which they qualify.

Where Seniors Can Locate Other Food Resources

For seniors in need of nutritious food, some of the best places to access food are their local community food pantry, meal sites (often at senior centers), shelters or healthcare facilities, said Donahue. They can also locate resources by viewing Good Shepherd’s Food Map at www.gsfb.org/get-help/food-map. She said that seniors without access to the internet can call Maine’s 211 number for information regarding how to connect with local hunger-relief organizations in their area.

Maine’s Area Agency on Aging offices can also provide information regarding food distribution programs and resources for seniors. There are five offices in Maine. The Aroostook Agency on Aging (www.aroostookaging.org) is located in Presque Isle. The Eastern Agency on Aging  (www.eaaa.org) is located in Brewer, for residents of Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Washington counties. Spectrum           Generations (www.spectrumgenerations.org) is located in Augusta, serving Cumberland (Harpswell and Brunswick only), Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Somerset and Waldo county residents. Seniors Plus (www.seniorsplus.org) is located in Lewiston for residents of Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. Southern Maine Agency on Aging (www.smaaa.org) is located in Biddeford to serve all of Cumberland county (except Brunswick and Harpswell) and York. 

One of the programs that’s managed through many of the Area Agency on Aging offices is the Supplemental Food Program for Seniors. Qualifying seniors can get two free boxes of nutritious food, such as baked beans, peanut butter, nonfat dry milk, salmon, rice and instant potatoes each month. Any senior interested in that program should contact their local Area Agency on Aging to find out more. For those who lack transportation, they may be able to designate a pickup person.

Another program that’s available for qualifying seniors is the Maine Senior Farm Share program, which enables eligible seniors 60 years or older to receive $50 worth of fresh, local produce from an authorized Maine farm during the growing season. To apply for the program, call (207) 446-5550 or email SeniorFarmShare.AGR@maine.gov.

Meals on Wheels is also a program that’s available to homebound seniors and is managed by the local Agency on Aging.  For more information contact the individual Agency on Aging in the area where the senior lives.

No Maine senior should go to bed hungry because there are a multitude of resources available throughout the state.

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