Sheila Christopher and Patty Bennett: Older Pennsylvanians don't need to go hungry
SHEILA CHRISTOPHER AND PATTY BENNETT JUN 21, 2022 | 12:00 AM
No senior citizens should ever go hungry, but some older Pennsylvanians on fixed incomes do. They sometimes have to choose between paying for medication or putting food on the table. As inflation and rising energy costs eat up even more of their limited budgets, they may not be eating at all on some days.
Pennsylvania’s charitable food network is working aggressively to ensure none ever go hungry. For example, Hunger-Free Pennsylvania — a statewide agency based in Canonsburg — partners with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the state Department of Agriculture in administering the federally-funded Senior Food Box Program.
Formally known as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), the program leverages government buying power to provide nutritious food packages to low-income residents. It is one of 14 nutrition assistance programs across Pennsylvania that receive federal funding from FNS to help improve nutrition security in the Commonwealth.
Food insecurity among seniors contributes to malnutrition, which exacerbates disease, increases disability, decreases resistance to infection, and extends hospital stays. Malnutrition increases care-giving demands and inflates health-care expenditures associated with premature or extended hospital or nursing home stays.
Seniors often face barriers to access for food assistance programs because they can’t get to them or use the technology they need to access care. The food box program aims to overcome these barriers by making healthy meals available for drop-off, drive-thru or pickup services.
In September, Hunger-Free Pennsylvania launched an innovative partnership with DoorDash to have healthy, nutritious meals delivered to homebound seniors. Where coverage overlaps with agencies administering the food box program, Dashers deliver the boxes for free, connecting food banks and food pantries with clients through last mile delivery.
Currently, DoorDash serves 18 counties, including Allegheny, Washington, and Westmoreland in the Pittsburgh region. DoorDash has delivered more than 16,083 food boxes since launching, the equivalent of 160,830 meals. The program remains open to other counties as it continues to grow, so that transportation is never a barrier to good health and life-sustaining nourishment.
More than 337,000 Pennsylvania seniors are eligible for the food box program, but only about 33,000 are enrolled to receive it this year. And the state's senior population continues to grow at a rate faster than commonwealth’s overall population, especially in southwestern Pennsylvania.
We need new ways to reach more older Pennsylvanians. Because eligibility requirements for prescription assistance programs and the food box program mirror each other so closely, people seeking low-cost prescription medication are now introduced to the charitable food program. Since its inception last summer, the effort — in which Hunger-Free Pennsylvania works with the state’s two prescription assistance programs for older adults, PACE and PACENET — has already drawn more than 14,000 applications for food boxes from all 67 counties.
Among those who do know about the program, some find accepting assistance hard. Seniors don’t always ask for help when they’re in need. The stigma of being poor or hungry may deter some from even applying for assistance in the first place.
Hunger-Free Pennsylvania worked with the Department of Agriculture to rebrand the CSFP as the Pennsylvania Senior Food Box Program. This helps older Pennsylvanians understand exactly what the program entails. The state also removed the requirement that seniors provide documented proof of income when applying to receive the box.
Our state has programs to feed senior citizens. The food box program is one of the most effective. No senior citizen should ever go hungry. Yet tens of thousands of older Pennsylvanians are eligible for assistance but not getting it. We need to do everything we can to inform them and make the programs work for them.
Sheila Christopher is executive director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, located in Canonsburg, and Patty Bennett is mid-Atlantic regional administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
First Published June 21, 2022, 12:00am