Thousands of Seniors Suffer Silently

By Zach Nissen, Food & Nutrition Services Outreach Coordinator

When I travel across the Food Bank’s 34 county service area, I hear a lot of “No.”

Do you receive food stamps? No.
Do you want to see if you’re eligible for them? No.

As a Food & Nutrition Services (FNS) Outreach Coordinator at the Food Bank, it is my job to increase access to FNS Benefits (known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and colloquially as food stamps) for people aged 60 and older. I travel to senior centers, food pantries, and soup kitchens across central and eastern North Carolina and talk to senior citizens about their lives, gleaning information about their health and well-being.

Most of the older adults I meet live off of very small fixed incomes of less than $1,000 a month. They live alone and have medical bills to pay. Many of them have strong opinions about what it means to receive food assistance, to be “on food stamps,” and are reluctant to ask for help. As Mr. Charles, a senior I met in Garner, said to me, “Food is a personal thing, and some people that need help don’t get it.”

Seniors, more than any other age group, do not seek help for food assistance. Nationally, only 41 percent of seniors who are eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are actually enrolled in the program. That means that the majority of low-income older Americans in our country do not receive the help available to them, and instead suffer silently in their homes on empty stomachs.

A large part of my job is to educate older adults about resources available to them, and the positive impact the FNS Program could have on their lives. When I speak with them about how food stamps can increase their access to good nutrition, they listen. And when I ask if they would like help buying healthy food like fresh produce, the answer is almost always, “Yes.”

Photo of Zach at Garner Senior Center

Zach sets up shop with FNS applications in hand at Garner Senior Center.

Since I started working at the Food Bank nine months ago, my team and I have helped more than 500 seniors apply for nutrition assistance. I have built partnerships with Meals on Wheels and AARP to reach more low-income older adults, especially those that are homebound.

In my travels I have seen circumstances that would make you cringe and heard stories that would break your heart. I have met people who should be enjoying their golden years after a lifetime of contributing to society, but instead struggle to survive off of meager meals of bread and water.

But I have also heard accounts of extraordinary life experiences and tales of old family recipes. I have seen big smiles and tears of joy when people are given the opportunity to eat full, healthy meals. As we have known for generations, food has real healing power. My team and I will continue to travel from county to county to provide the best care possible to our most vulnerable neighbors, so they can live the end of their lives as they always imagined: happy and healthy.

May is Older Americans Month. More than 45,500 seniors in central & eastern North Carolina live in poverty, and thousands more struggle to survive on a fixed income. This month we will share stories of seniors struggling with food insecurity as well as those serving their community to help solve senior hunger.