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TWIN FALLS — Some months, there’s barely enough money for John and Alice Helkey to buy food.

For three years, when their Social Security checks don’t cover all of their needs, they’ve come from their Hazelton home to receive a hot meal at St. Jerome Catholic Church as often as twice a week.

“It’s a blessing, really,” said John, 74, drinking coffee before dinner one Wednesday night in August, at a table with a patriotic tablecloth in the church’s gymnasium.

The Community Kitchen, run by the Jerome Food Ministry, helps stretch the couple’s food budget. Living expenses consume their fixed income of about $1,600 per month.

“It adds up real quick,” John said.

The couple also goes to the ministry’s food pantry once a month for a U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity box — and more frequently for bread.

“Without that,” said Alice, turning 70 this month, “we’re sunk.”

Hunger is a growing problem among south-central Idaho’s seniors as their population increases and prescription drug costs rise. Senior centers’ food programs are struggling to keep up with the demand even while they have less money to do it.

The College of Southern Idaho’s Office on Aging saw a 15 percent increase in the number of home-delivered meals last fiscal year. And the number of congregate meals — those served on site at senior centers — grew nearly 7 percent.

That growth led the office to cut its reimbursements to senior centers, a change that took effect July 1. Now, the Office on Aging reimburses senior centers $2.65 for every congregate meal (a 56-cent cut) and $3.02 for each home-delivered meal (a 33-cent cut).

Also July 1, the office tightened requirements governing which homebound seniors can receive home-delivered meals.

But demand for food assistance continues to grow.

In south-central Idaho’s eight counties, 1,177 people 65 and older receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — formerly known as food stamps — according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. That’s 40 more people than in 2014.

And the problem of senior hunger extends nationwide, with 10.2 million people 60 and older struggling with food insecurity, according to Meals on Wheels America. That’s one in every six seniors.

“People don’t realize the intensity of it,” said Jeanette Roe, site/financial director for the Twin Falls Senior Center.

One late-July day alone, Roe talked with three people who came to the senior center begging for food.

Some community members have the mindset that seniors should have prepared better for old age, Roe said. But for many seniors, circumstances are beyond their control.

“Our job is that of all the things they have to worry about, food is not one of them,” Roe said.

Senior centers are required to ask for donations from seniors who receive meals. Some give more than the suggested $5 donation. “Not everyone who comes here is low-income,” Roe said.

But many can’t afford to pay at all.

Why are seniors hungry?

The costs of prescription medications, health care and living expenses all contribute to senior hunger. Some seniors are raising grandchildren or great-grandchildren, too. And across the Magic Valley, seniors often rely on taxis or friends for rides to grocery stores or free meals.

Some of the Jerome Senior Center’s regulars are living off only $740 per month from Social Security.

“Our seniors are struggling,” site director Gillian Minter said.

Some seniors buy cheap food because it’s what they can afford, Roe said. Often it’s unhealthy, prepackaged and high in fat and sodium.

At the Jerome Senior Center, some people don’t eat their meat at lunch — instead taking it home so they’ll have something to feed their pets, Minter said. “It’s very sad.”

Many members of the older generation aren’t comfortable accepting help or handouts, said Jeff Schroeder, coordinator for the Jerome Food Ministry.

Food ministry volunteers focus on assuring seniors it’s OK to get assistance. “We try to make them feel more comfortable,” Schroeder said.

One Wednesday in August, dozens of people gathered at St. Jerome Catholic Church to receive a hot meal. Volunteers from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward cooked and served the food and led a prayer before dinner.

Jerome retiree Marie Mendoza — eating a casserole, beans and salad while working on a crossword puzzle — had heard about the Community Kitchen through St. Jerome Catholic Church, where she goes to church.

Mendoza has been retired for 11 years, is diabetic and says it’s a struggle to get out some days — especially during winter. Living expenses have increased, she said, but she manages. “God helps me. I pray.”

In addition to eating at the Community Kitchen, she visits Martha & Mary’s Food Pantry — also run by the Jerome Food Ministry — once or twice a month to get bread and meat.

“I don’t know how I would do it without it,” Mendoza said. “There are so many out there who go hungry.”

But she gives back, such as donating clothes to Joseph’s Closet, a ministry that provides clothing to those in need. And she passes along a message to her grandchildren: Don’t waste food. There are people who need it.

Senior centers in a crunch

Across south-central Idaho, senior centers are experiencing a decline in donations as they also deal with July’s reimbursement cut.

“Most of our home-delivered meal patrons, most of them can’t afford to pay anything,” Minter said. The Jerome Senior Center’s suggested donation is $4 per meal — lower than many neighboring senior centers.

The center sends out monthly invoices to seniors who receive meals but is lucky to receive 15 percent of the total suggested donation, Minter said.

It’s a similar situation at the Ageless Senior Center in Kimberly.

Most seniors who receive home-delivered meals don’t pay a suggested donation because they can’t afford it, board chairwoman Nancy Duncan said. “We wouldn’t want anyone to go hungry if they did not have $5.”

And the center — nestled in Kimberly’s historical downtown — expects to lose $3,199 in funding as a result of the Office on Aging’s meal reimbursement cuts.

At the same time, the center projects a 5 percent increase in the number of meals served this year. In July, it served 409 congregate meals and 264 home-delivered meals.

Last year, the total food budget was $47,000. Food costs have gone up at least 30 percent since 77-year-old Bonnie Peter started as site manager a couple of years ago. The Kimberly center receives several thousand dollars per year through a city grant; it also receives $1,000 from the city of Hansen.

Jerome’s senior center — which serves about 500 meals per week — has cut back on salad bar offerings and serving sizes due to funding constraints. In July, donations for meals dropped 40 percent from the previous month.

“We’re hurting,” Minter said.

On average, each meal costs about $6.75 to make and deliver, while the new reimbursement rates are $2.65 and $3.02. That’s a big gap.

“If we’re not getting donations from our patrons, we have to get it some other way,” Minter said.

Fundraisers typically bring in just $200 or $300. The center’s one big fundraiser of the year, an auction, brings in $1,500 to $2,100.

“You can only have so many fundraisers before people stop showing up,” Minter said.

The center also relies on grants and donations from local companies. “A $500 or $1,000 donation would make a huge difference,” Minter said.

Jerome’s senior center — and some others across the Magic Valley — are reaching out to more grant programs.

This year, Jerome center received grants from businesses and nonprofits such as St. Luke’s Health System, United Way of South Central Idaho and Wells Fargo.

“Every little bit helps,” Minter said.

One south-central Idaho center tells a different story. Gooding Senior Center hasn’t been drastically affected by the meal reimbursement cuts because most people pay for their meals regularly, manager Lynne Corbett said. “We have very few people who seek food assistance.”

But Gooding is the exception in the region.

“We don’t want to raise prices,” Minter said. “I think it would turn more and more people away. If they can’t afford $4, they certainly can’t afford $5.”

And senior centers won’t turn anyone away.

A senior center lunch provides one-third of a person’s daily nutritional needs, Roe said, but some seniors don’t eat anything else.

“A lot of the people we serve here, it’s probably the only meal they eat.”

Home-delivered meals

Want to help alleviate the senior hunger problem? One way is volunteering to deliver meals to homebound seniors.

In Twin Falls, Denice Fahrenwald has volunteered at the Twin Falls Senior Center for five years. “I’m still a newbie,” she said one morning in mid-August. She pointed out other volunteers gathered at the senior center; some have helped for more than 15 years.

After Fahrenwald retired in 2010 from Clear Springs Foods, she looked for a way to keep busy. The Filer woman took exercise classes at CSI, but she wanted to volunteer. Now, she volunteers with Rising Stars Therapeutic Riding Center and delivers Twin Falls Senior Center meals to homebound seniors.

“They’re so grateful and they’re so thankful,” Fahrenwald said.

For some, her delivery is their only human interaction of the day.

Fahrenwald is an on-call volunteer at the senior center, filling whatever route is open, and has driven each of the 16 routes. She typically serves meals five days a week — Monday through Friday; most volunteers don’t come in that often. On Fridays, she brings frozen meals for the weekend.

Most volunteers are seniors themselves. Occasionally there are younger helpers, such as two families with children who delivered meals that mid-August day.

“The problem we face is a shortage of drivers,” Fahrenwald said. Drivers typically volunteer one to 1 1/2 hours at a time, but that varies depending on how many miles and homes are in their routes.

Fahrenwald arrived at the center around 10 a.m. that morning and looked at a schedule on a clipboard. She was assigned to route four. Near the back entrance, a cooler labeled “4” with a black marker held paper bags with cold items such as salad, milk or juice.

Fahrenwald looked at her list and counted 10 people on her route scheduled to receive meals that day. The list includes dietary restrictions, highlighted in pink, and special instructions. And it notes whether the senior wants a copy of the Times-News dropped off with the meal.

Fahrenwald counted the paper bags of food. Nearby, three other volunteers did the same.

“It’s really important to count,” Fahrenwald said. It’s not a big deal if there are too many, she said, but it is if there aren’t enough.

She chatted with another volunteer about that day’s Jumble puzzle in the Times-News. They debated whether the correct phrase was “hot diggity” or “hot ziggity.”

Kitchen staff brought out hot meals in aluminum tins, which volunteers packed up in bins. Fahrenwald loaded the food in the trunk of her red Toyota and was ready to go.

She put slips of paper in her cup holder; they asked whether each senior wanted to receive a frozen meal for Labor Day.

With the schedule of stops sitting on her dashboard, Fahrenwald headed east on Kimberly Road and turned off near Amalgamated Sugar in south Twin Falls. Her first stop: a small yellow house with a dirt driveway. The curtains were drawn.

“He gets a hot meal and no sugar,” Fahrenwald said as she looked at the instructions. She knocked on the front door and opened it. “I’ve got your meal,” she hollered.

She was in and out in less than a minute. Sometimes seniors want to chat and it’s harder to leave. But volunteers can’t linger, Fahrenwald said, because other people are waiting for meals.

At a house on Ninth Avenue East, instructions from the senior center noted: Open the door, announce yourself and go inside.

“There’s a lot of them on this route,” Fahrenwald said.

Inside, she chatted with the meal recipient, who told Fahrenwald how much she enjoyed the meatballs in a recent meal.

Fahrenwald said she’d pass along the compliment.

Relying on meals

Lifelong Twin Falls resident Catherine Lang, 93, gets home-delivered lunches from the Twin Falls Senior Center after her daughter in Denver arranged for it.

“I just can’t cook anymore,” said Lang, who has arthritis in her back.

She saves food so she’ll have enough for dinner, too.

June Erstad, 68, has received the Twin Falls center’s home-delivered meals for about two years.

Erstad doesn’t have a problem cooking if she’s feeling well. But she endured cancer treatment, has gone through neck surgeries and complications from a tracheotomy, has been hospitalized numerous times and still sees six doctors. Cooking became difficult.

“I’d have to scrounge around to find something to eat,” Erstad said one late-August afternoon, at home in northeast Twin Falls’ Carriage Lane Apartments.

Figurines filled three large bookcases in the living room. Floral-print pillows decorated her red and green sofas and chairs. As Erstad talked, her curly-haired shih tzu-poodle mix snored loudly on the floor.

Erstad has a caregiver for five hours a day, five days a week, through A Caring Hand Home Care, and the caregiver takes her to the grocery store. She doesn’t remember the last time she drove. “I’m home the majority of the time.”

She lives off her Social Security check and two days earlier gave up cable television because she couldn’t afford it. Insurance doesn’t cover three or four of her prescription medications; sometimes, she simply doesn’t get them.

The last time the Twin Falls Senior Center asked for donations, she wasn’t able to pay.

“I think the most important thing,” she said, “is they’re a godsend for the seniors.”

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