TWIN FALLS — As the need for senior food assistance grows, many nonprofit organizations are stepping up to help.
Here’s a look at what four of them are doing:
Jerome Food Ministry
Jerome Food Ministry is a nonprofit, volunteer-run collaboration of more than 25 churches, social and civic groups. It offers the Community Kitchen, which serves a meal at 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, and Martha & Mary’s Food Pantry, where food is distributed Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
In 2015, the kitchen served an average of 180 seniors each month. At the food pantry, about 129 seniors each month received food — up about 20 percent.
“It really is heartbreaking sometimes when I sit down to talk to them, and they really are making decisions between food and medical services,” said food ministry coordinator Jeff Schroeder, who believes rising prescription drug costs have added to the financial strain.
But there’s an increase in participation in Jerome Food Ministry programs across all age groups — not just seniors, Schroeder said. And the biggest group served is children up to age 18.
Schroeder said more people are learning about the food pantry, now in its fourth year. And “we’ve tried to reach out to the seniors more.”
One challenge for seniors coming to the pantry is carrying the food out of the building. And sometimes they have to stand in line. But the benefit is they receive more than at the Community Kitchen — typically, enough to prepare two or three meals.
One early-August evening, a line of at least 15 people formed outside Martha & Mary’s, a converted house behind St. Jerome Catholic Church. People can receive food up to three times a week through the Idaho Foodbank’s Grocery Alliance Program.
“We want them to be a Jerome resident,” Schroeder said, “but there’s no other requirements for that.”
But there are income requirements to get a commodity box through the U.S. Department of Agriculture once a month. And the amount of food in each box depends on the family size. Items in the boxes include applesauce, dry cereal, canned carrots, raisins, cheese, peanut butter, egg noodles, chicken and cranberry juice.
Inside the food pantry, shelves are lined with produce, canned goods and bags of bread.
Seniors tend of be more conscious than others about what food they take home, volunteer Dena Gubler said, and avoid certain items such as peanut butter. “They seem to watch their diet a little bit.”
The Salvation Army
At The Salvation Army in Twin Falls, at least half of the clients are seniors, said Kurt Hopper, interim family services director. The organization serves 75 to 100 hot lunches every weekday and offers emergency food boxes with a 90-day supply of food.
“Both of these are necessary when (seniors) are living on a fixed income,” Hopper said.
The Salvation Army also offers a daily bread line.
Hopper said he has noticed some seniors would rather pay their bills and debts than eat. When they come in, he said, they’ve tried to do the honorable thing but are out of money for food.
Hopper sees a consistent group of seniors who come to get assistance at The Salvation Army. But over the past couple of months, he has seen more new people, as well.
“It feels like the majority of seniors are doing the best they can with what they’re given,” Hopper said. “They just don’t have enough.”
The Idaho Foodbank
The Idaho Foodbank serves about 2,000 seniors throughout the state via the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, funded by the USDA. Food boxes are distributed each month to food pantries and senior centers in 39 of the state’s 44 counties.
The Idaho Foodbank launched the statewide program in April 2015 and signed up participants through that September.
Idaho was one of the states nationwide that built its program the fastest, said Adam Hansen, programs coordinator at The Idaho Foodbank. “It shows there’s definitely a need.”
Some partnering organizations have a significant waiting list, he said. To better meet the need, The Idaho Foodbank plans to put in a request in November with USDA to serve more seniors.
“The entire state, we’re definitely seeing that need for seniors,” Hansen said.
It’s also the first year The Idaho Foodbank has someone who focuses on senior hunger through the AmeriCorps VISTA service program.
“We’re in the pilot phase for a number of different things we can do,” Hansen said.
One new program is arranging for a truck to drop off food at senior housing complexes in Ada County. It has happened only four times so far, Hansen said, but was well received.
Seniors who are homebound — particularly those in rural areas — need offerings tailored to meet their needs, he said.
Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force
The Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force is a group of about 20 organizations that address food insecurity in Idaho.
Member organizations include Boys & Girls Clubs, Idaho Department of Agriculture, Idaho Foodbank and Metro Meals on Wheels.
Some seniors are making tough choices, such as whether to buy food or medicine or pay utility bills, task force director Kathy Gardner said. Some split pills in half so they’ll last longer.
And there isn’t always a good awareness of what’s happening, Gardner said. “Especially if they’re homebound, it’s a population that’s very invisible.”
The task force wants to do a first-ever survey, by county across Idaho, using U.S. Census Bureau questions about food insecurity and focusing specifically on seniors.
“We don’t know exactly where the food-insecure seniors are,” Gardner said.
The topic came up during the 2014 Idaho Summit on Hunger and Food Security.
“At the time, I thought it was kind of an elusive next step,” Gardner said, but now, the task force is moving forward.
The biennial summit began about a decade ago. In 2014, there were 259 participants from 49 cities and three American Indian tribes. Attendees included teachers, school nutrition workers, elected officials, food producers and market managers, senior centers, registered dietitians and students.
There isn’t a timeline yet for the senior hunger survey. The task force is working with Boise State University’s Center for the Study of Aging, as well as national partners.
Gardner said national partners have told her nobody has ever done a direct, county-level survey about senior hunger.
“I think that’s why there’s some interest,” she said.
Some states have used a poverty formula to get a “synthetic number” per county, she said, but that isn’t as accurate for small, rural communities.