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Senior citizens find respite in area-wide food programs

By Susan Kantor—Betty, a 73-year-old Champaign resident, receives a check from Social Security the third Wednesday of every month. She worked all her life, but without one steady job, she does not receive a pension in retirement. With half of her check going toward health insurance, she uses food pantries and the bag of groceries the Food for Seniors program delivers twice a month. She's one of thousands of senior citizens who receive help from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.

In 2005, the Eastern Illinois Foodbank served 864 unique senior citizens, according to its Hunger in America 2006 report. By 2009, the foodbank estimated that it served 8, 048 seniors.

These numbers are calculated from surveys across the 14 counties the Eastern Illinois Foodbank serves.

Andrea Rundell, director of agency relations for the foodbank, said she thinks the number was undercounted in 2005.

"I think the low count problem comes from the difficulty in actually being able to interview seniors through the surveys, because the surveys are a matter of going out and talking to people in pantries and soup kitchens and shelters," Rundell said.

Many seniors will send someone to food pantries for them or receive food deliveries.  This year, the foodbank sent volunteers on delivery routes to set up interviews with seniors about their needs.

"I think we got a better representation of seniors this last time," Rundell said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're still undercounting them."

The percentage of senior citizens in poverty has risen. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.9 percent of people 65 years and older were below the poverty level in 1999. In the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006-2008 American Community Survey, the percentage of people below the poverty level in Champaign County, based on a three-year estimate, rose to 9.3 percent. Various agencies in Champaign County work to provide services to low-income senior citizens.

Click on a resource below to learn more:

The Family Service Senior Resource Center

Food for Seniors

One woman's story

Peace Meal


- By Susan Kantor/ For C-U Citizen Access

 Below: A look inside of the Peace Meal Senior Nutrition Program congregate meal site in Rantoul.




The Family Service Senior Resource Center

Various agencies in Champaign County work to provide services to low-income senior citizens.

The Family Service Senior Resource Center provides services to seniors in Champaign County, including transportation and homemaker services. To receive services from the Family Service Center, one must be 60 years or older and a resident of Champaign County.

"We do have a high percentage of people who are either at the poverty level or slightly above the poverty level," said Pat Babich-Smith, manager of counseling and advocacy.

Babich-Smith oversees nine staff caseworkers: two work in senior protective service, one is a caregiver adviser, one works with self-neglect seniors, two are outreach workers and three do ongoing casework.

People will typically call in for assistance with one problem, such as lack of money for food, health care or housing or to report neglect. A caseworker will look at their situations and try to help with the programs for which they qualify.

"The things that low-income seniors struggle with are prescriptions and food, also housing costs," Babich-Smith said. "If you have a senior that's still in their own home, if you're living on a fixed income, it's really difficult to maintain your home. If you need a new roof, it's very difficult."

Babich-Smith said the requests have remained steady and most of their elderly clients live only on Social Security. Most years, senior citizens on Social Security receive cost-of-living adjustments, based on the consumer price index. No cost-of-living adjustments will be given in 2010 because the consumer price index declined.

"On an ongoing basis for low-income seniors, they're always struggling because they're always on a fixed income," Babich-Smith said. "Any increase that they may get in their income "“ I'm talking one and a half percent or three percent, this year no percent "“ it's going to be offset because they'll be paying a little more rent, they'll be getting a little less in food stamps."

"As the economy has gotten worse and food prices have risen, we've gotten more people calling and saying they're having a harder time affording food," she said.

The center can assist seniors with applying for food stamps, and it also refers people to Food for Seniors.



Food for Seniors

Every other week, volunteers from the Retired Senior Volunteer Program deliver sacks of groceries to a maximum of 216 seniors in Champaign and Urbana as part of the Food for Seniors program. Seniors are referred to the program based on income, medical costs and number of people in the household. 

Susan Dorsey, a coordinator of the Food for Seniors program, said they see new referrals several times a month, and the number of people receiving the groceries fluctuates because of people going into the hospital or nursing homes, dietary restrictions, and death.

Of the more than 200 bags they deliver, Dorsey estimates that 10 households are couples.

"When we took over the program, there was a huge waiting list," Dorsey said. "We decided from then on, it would be one bag per household, just because that way we could get to and feed more people."

The program gets food from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and searches groceries stores for deals. The coordinators recently worked with the Prospect Avenue branch of Meijer to have people donate $10 gift cards, and Meijer would match the gift. The program received more than $4,000 in Meijer gift cards and was able to purchase 240 packages of Meijer jumbo hotdogs for $218.

They were able to find chicken breasts from the foodbank and secure enough by going to the foodbank two or three times. If the meat at the foodbank is limited, they will go to Meijer to look for deals. For Christmas, they were able to buy turkey loaves from Meijer for the seniors.

"We do really try to keep a balance," Dorsey said. "We try to give them a fruit, vegetable, soup, bread, rice or potatoes, maybe pasta. When we can get it, we get fresh produce from the food bank. We were really lucky with that for a while . . . We haven't been able to get fresh produce for a while."

The program coordinators look for healthy foods and match the foods to make a meal. If they give peanut butter, they won't give it again for a while. If they find tuna skillet dinners, they'll give a can of tuna.

"The difficulty with that program is that they're primarily getting their food from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank," Babich-Smith said. If seniors are diabetic or have special diet requirements, many prepackaged foods may not be the best for them. "If your doctor wants you eating certain kinds of foods "“ fresh fruits and vegetables "“ that can be a big struggle for our clients because it's expensive to eat healthy."

"So many of these senior citizens aren't in good health. They're trying to live on social security. They really don't have the option of getting a part-time job. If they were healthy enough to do that, social security will penalize them," Dorsey said.


One woman's story

Betty is a Food for Seniors recipient. Born and raised in Champaign, she has her degree from the University of Illinois, but she received it with most of her career behind her. She asked that her last name not be used.

"I started in '67 with the Illinois Department of Mental Health, and I thought that was going to be my career," she said. "They revamped mental health, and revamped me out of a job after five years. I was going to Parkland. That was going to be my retirement. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. After that, I obtained lots of jobs, but they were short-lived."

Now, Betty lives on a monthly Social Security check. Half of her check goes to her Blue Cross and Blue Shield supplemental health insurance. She has high cholesterol and her sugar isn't right. Her heart isn't the strongest, and she has cataract problems.

"If I had [help with insurance], I could easily live comfortably so that if I wanted something besides hamburger or bologna, I could buy it every now and then," Betty said. "I know how to save because I grew up pinching pennies."

But Betty said she doesn't want to complain about her situation.

"I get up in the morning and that's a blessing. Look around you someone else is worse off than you," she said.

She calls Food for Seniors a "lifesaver," and also goes to the food pantry at Stone Creek Church in Urbana. She loves the salads that come with everything in them, but can't afford them. Her toaster went out, and she needs to replace it so she can have coffee and toast in the morning. She'll buy household cleaners and supplies from the Dollar Tree and then pick and choose what she can buy from the grocery store.

"I can say well I've been there and done that because all I've ever known is poverty," she said.

"My sympathy goes out to anyone who is hungry, but I think with young people, they do have the ability to find work, unless they're ill or disabled in some way," said Dorsey, the Food for Seniors coordinator. "I think the seniors are so limited on what they're able to do and what their health will allow them to do, I just don't think they have the resources to bring in the extra income like younger people do."

Food for Seniors delivers food only in Champaign and Urbana. Because the cities have more resources, finding food in the rural areas of the county can be much more difficult.

"It is a difficulty in the more rural parts of the county, the more southern parts of the county, especially if, not only are you low-income, but you have transportation issues," said Babich-Smith of the Family Service Senior Resource Center.


Peace Meal

The Peace Meal Senior Nutrition Program is run through Eastern Illinois University and provides lunches to senior citizens in 14 counties in east central Illinois. The program, which began at the Family Resource Center in Champaign in 1974 and moved to Eastern in 1976, is funded 40 percent by state and federal funds and 60 percent through grants, fundraising and donations.

In Champaign County, the program provides approximately 300 congregate and home-delivered meals, Monday through Friday. A central kitchen in Rantoul provides the meals that are delivered to homes and meal sites throughout the county.

Cathy Lentz, assistant director of Peace Meal who is in charge of the Champaign County sites, said they try to provide seniors with nutritious meals.

"We do modified diets somewhat. There's no added sodium in the cooking. We will adjust for diabetic diets, leaving off gravy," Lentz said.

They serve a different meal every day and have tried to make healthier choices for the seniors, substituting fruit for baked desserts and wheat breads for white breads.

"You're always getting new people coming out of the hospital, sometimes needing meals for short-term, sometimes needing meals for long-term, it just depends," Lentz said.

Home delivered meals have increased, while the numbers at the congregate sites have declined.

"We're just all getting older. The society is getting older and there's a lot more need of it," Lentz said. "Some of those people in the past used to go from the congregate to the homebound. Now we're seeing people just coming into the homebound program as a start. And there's a big need for it."

The program has a separate grant from the Ruth Hayward Foundation that helps pay for the rural route. This route covers the outskirts of Urbana and Rantoul, and Savoy. The program has had requests for sites such as Broadlands in southeastern Champaign County but had to make the decision that it is too far out for the drivers.

"We try to fulfill requests as much as we can," Lentz said. If they cannot drop off meals once a day, they might drop off frozen meals once a week, or a volunteer can pick up a meal at a site for the senior citizen.

The Rantoul congregate meal site is the largest in Champaign County, with 15 to 25 people attending daily. Smaller sites, like the United Methodist Church in Urbana, can have an average of six people for lunch.

"We think that coming in is so much more than just a meal," Lentz said. These guys [at the United Methodist Church in Urbana], for the past year, if they hadn't enjoyed coming in and socializing with each other they wouldn't have. We would have closed the site here."

Some Peace Meal congregate meal sites will have birthday or holiday parties, and will host speakers or host health screenings.

"A lot of what we're about is the social and giving people a reason to get up and a place to go and a place to socialize and a place to learn about senior issues," she said. "Some of our people who come out to congregate sites could get a homebound meal, but they don't want to do that. They want to keep getting out, and they want to go."

Agnes Harbor, a 65-year-old Rantoul resident, has been coming to Peace Meal in Rantoul for eight or nine years, just to get away from her house.

"The meal is good, and I like to come to see the people to get away from my house," she said.

Lloyd Nothnagel has been coming to Peace Meal for the past six months and comes every day, unless he has something else to do, like a doctor's appointment.

"Mainly I'm lonely, and I don't want to cook myself, and fellowship because I'm alone now. I still have a wife, but she's in a nursing home," he said.

Earlier in the spring, Nothnagel was in the emergency room with breathing problems. He has gotten better since, but it was hard to cook for himself.

"I get a good meal without having to cook. They have a pretty good balanced meal here. I cook about one thing at a time, so it's a lot more balanced," Northnagel said.

Gladys Corbly started coming to Peace Meal 20 years ago, when her children suggested she try Peace Meal as an alternative to the frozen meals she was eating. She liked it, and has been coming to Peace Meal ever since.

"It's better than me cooking," she said. "I cooked a meal, and by the (time) I got it cooked, I didn't want to eat it. I threw it out. So it's a lot cheaper for me to come here and eat."

She pays monthly for her meals and volunteers, setting up for bingo on Mondays and Wednesdays, getting water and passing out cookies.

"It means an awful lot because I'm with people," she said. Otherwise I'd be alone at home, sitting at home by myself. This way, I'm with some people for about an hour or so."

A $3 donation is suggested for the daily meals.

"There's a fair amount that don't donate or just aren't able to donate much more than a dollar," Lentz said. "If they are unable to pay, we can't stop them. I try to encourage everybody to donate something. It puts more value to the meal and it helps us out."

"I think everybody knows the national economy is not good. The state economy is not good. What ends up happening a lot of times when that's the case is that there's less resources available and less benefits available to help people at the same time that costs are increasing," Babich-Smith said. "It becomes more and more of a struggle."

Rundell said she thinks the system is adapting to the needs of seniors.

"I don't know how much more focus we need on it," she said. "I suspect we need more, and I suspect it's just going to continue that way. But that's one of the things we're going to have to try and look at."



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