Why some LA seniors don’t have enough to eat

Written by and

An increasing number of American seniors are only getting one meal a day, relying on food banks to add to their pantries for the month. Often, these daily meals aren’t nutritious enough to keep them healthy.

In California, one out of five residents over 65 years of age currently struggles with food insecurity and Los Angeles has been especially hard hit. The city is home to the largest estimated population of food insecure seniors in the country.

Recent data from the California Association of Food Banks and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research finds that hunger goes hand-in-hand with senior poverty, which grew nationwide after the financial downturn of 2008.

Addressing both poverty and hunger among seniors is difficult, but one LA organization is trying to help by delivering meals to seniors directly and to local neighborhood restaurants, where mealtime can be both social and nurturing.

Producer Ruxandra Guidi spoke to Rigo Saborio, the head of St. Barnabas Senior Services, a nonprofit providing meals, case management and other social services to older adults in Los Angeles.

Ruxandra Guidi: LA has the largest number of food insecure seniors in the country—1.1 million people. Why is that?

Rigo Saborio: The cause is not just poverty though it is a major factor, because it’s a major predictor to being hungry. But I think there’s also education—not every senior has a good understanding of what nutritional value is. There are also other social determinants of health as they relate to nutrition, like safety in neighborhoods. Often times, depending on where older adults live in LA, they’re not able to get food. And then of course, there’s also the lack of physical activity, so if people feel somewhat afraid to go out and can’t get out and exercise, this contributes to the problem.

RG: Why is the matter of senior hunger important to everyone–not just older adults?

RS: Food and appropriate nutrition is critical in maintaining a certain level of well-being for older adults, so they can stay in their homes, within their communities. We find that when people are hungry or lack the appropriate nutritional value of at least one meal a day, this really impacts their overall well being and could quickly spiral into more than one chronic condition—high blood pressure and diabetes, for example. As a result, seniors also begin to have to utilize the healthcare system so much more than they would typically need to. They’d probably be ending up in the emergency room and needless to say, in hospitals, which can really turn their lives upside down.

RG: St. Barnabas serves over 1,000 hot lunches to LA seniors in need every day of the week. Is there one delivery model that works better for seniors overall?

RS: In my 25 years working with older adults, what I have found to be true is that there’s no “one size fits all”. Just like in any age group, there is significant variation into what people want, so what’s actually the best approach is to provide different ways for people to have access to food. St. Barnabas has a total of 14 congregate meal sites, a number of them are in assisted supported housing. Then we have multipurpose senior centers, where people come for the meals and then for the socialization, and we have built-in activities that go above and beyond, so sometimes seniors go out of their way for that. Then we have a third model that has been very successful—we are partnering with two restaurants. That was driven by the desire to meet an ethnic and cultural demand. We have a partnership with a restaurant and Chinatown, another in Koreatown and we’re looking at partnering soon with an Armenian restaurant or a Latin fusion restaurant.

RG: How are these meals paid for?

RS: These services are primarily supported through a contract with the City of Los Angeles, through the LA Department of Aging. It relies on federal funding, which covers much of the cost but not fully. For the most part, the people we are serving are very low-income; these are individuals who usually are in their mid-seventies, relying mostly, or exclusively, on Social Security or SSI—getting anywhere from $800 to $900 a month. And if you take into account the cost of living in LA, the cost of the roof over their heads, it doesn’t leave them much for food.

RG: There have been fears recently that funding for these programs would dry up or that the need for them would grow. How is this being addressed?

RS: There just aren’t enough resources to meet the demand, and that challenge is only going to get greater. And when you layer in the desires, and rightly so, to provide even better quality foods, fresher foods, it is going to increase the cost. When we look at the reality at the number of older adults increasing, living longer, but not necessarily healthier, it’s sort of that perfect storm. In the long run, it certainly can be an issue if it’s not addressed with a long term plan. If there is an effort to privatize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, how will that stand against the reality of serving large numbers of seniors in need in Los Angeles? How are those changes going to impact them? As I see it, I don’t see how it will possibly help us to limit services to seniors. It’s an unsolved issue at this point but something that us and other colleagues in this space are looking at very seriously.