Rowan seniors are going hungry

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Salisbury resident Rachel Weeks stood in line with a portable oxygen tank in one hand and an empty grocery bag in the other.
She was waiting outside the Salvation Army of Rowan County, which gives food to people who qualify for assistance.
One in six seniors in North Carolina don’t get enough to eat, according to AARP North Carolina. Sometimes, Weeks is one of them.
She receives $149 a month in food stamps, which she said isn’t quite enough to feed her and her son, who can’t find work.
“If you don’t spend it just right, you do without until the next month,” Weeks said.
To help her get by, she goes to the Salvation Army in Salisbury once a month to get food.
Once a week, the organization also offers bread, sweets, crackers and a deli sandwich to those who qualify. Weeks collected these items Wednesday, carefully choosing her allotted amount of food.
“I love this bread,” she said cheerfully, adding it to her bag. “You can make really good pizzas with it.”
Weeks, who grew up in Mocksville, was once a restaurant cook. She’s held several other jobs in her lifetime, but she said none of them allowed her to save much for retirement.
When asked about her financial situation, Weeks answered frankly. Her disability check barely covers her medications, bills, gas, car insurance and other basic expenses.
Rowan Helping Ministries, a homeless shelter in Salisbury, operates another food pantry that Weeks visits. The organization also hosts a soup kitchen and clothing center.
“If it wasn’t for these places, I don’t know what I would do or what my son would do,” she said. “I want to thank the people in Rowan County that are helping everybody that can’t help themselves right now.”
In North Carolina, 10.7 percent of seniors aged 60 and older live below the poverty line ($10,890 for one person and $22,350 for a family of four), according to the AARP.
Capt. Melissa Smith of the local Salvation Army said she’s not sure if the recent economic downturn has affected seniors more than other groups, but they often face more challenges because of their age and health.
“We’ve had some grandparents taking care of grandchildren, and that poses a problem for them,” she said. “Social security checks or disability checks just don’t stretch enough sometimes.”
In July of this year, 39 out of 659 food recipients, or 5.9 percent, at Salvation Army of Rowan County were age 65 and older. In August, that number decreased a bit to 30 of 737 food recipients, or 4 percent.
Smith said the number of food assistance cases at the Salvation Army has nearly doubled in the past few years, from about 3,000 to almost 6,000.
She said the organization used to rely just on donations and food bank items, but now it often has to buy food from grocery stores to keep up with need.
Assistance to Rowan County food stamp recipients also has doubled over two years, said Pat Spears, economic services program administrator with the Department of Social Services.
The state’s nutrition services program — commonly known as food stamps — gives a monthly allowance for food items to those who qualify.
Cathy Gaddy, of Salisbury, said the $125 she receives doesn’t last a whole month.
Gaddy said she attends the senior lunch program sponsored by Rufty-Holmes Senior Center every day, “because if I didn’t, sometimes I would lose a meal.”
Many of the 410 seniors participating in the center’s congregate nutrition program are at high risk for malnutrition, said Rufty-Holmes Executive Director Rick Eldridge.
Rowan County Senior Services identified 774 different adults age 60 and older as being at risk for malnutrition last year, Eldridge said. Of that number, 185, or 23.9 percent, were at or below the poverty level.
“Even people who you would think have enough income don’t really eat properly, especially those that are living alone,” Eldridge said.
Some older adults may not know how to cook complete meals, or they may not be able to go to grocery stores or physically prepare the food.
Karen Smith, supervisor of the Lafayette Center meal site, said not everyone in the senior lunch program has financial trouble, and some people may need just a little help.
“But for a few of them, who are receiving very little income, this may be the only meal that they get,” she said. “We’ll know that something is not quite right, because they want to eat so much food and take so much home.”
Gaddy worked as a manager of a nursing home in Raleigh before her son was born. She went back to work later on, but medical expenses for both her and her son began to pile up.
Since 2007, Gaddy hasn’t been able to work due to health issues, but she isn’t quite old enough to draw Social Security income.
“We really need the meal sites,” she said. “I think they’re doing a great job here.“
She said she doesn’t often go to the Salvation Army or Rowan Helping Ministries, but recently she’s had to get some extra help.
Melissa Smith said some seniors who need that help might not ask for it, because they don’t want to be a burden to others or lose their self-sufficiency.
“If there are seniors that are really in need, they shouldn’t feel bad about coming,” she said. “We’re here to help them as much as we can.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.

Senior hunger

• At least one in nine seniors is at risk of going hungry.

• As many as 85 percent of seniors in the care of others are at risk for malnutrition or undernutrition.

• North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation in food hardship.

• Nearly 25 percent of the state’s population reported not having enough money to buy food for themselves or their families in the past year.

• Nearly half of those who obtain groceries at a food bank or other emergency food provider in the state are over age 50.

• Feeding programs such as Meals on Wheels and senior nutrition programs serve over 6 million meals annually in North Carolina.

• About 26,000 (49 percent) of Rowan County households and 48,249 individuals received assistance in the past year in Medicaid, food and nutrition and/or Work First benefits.

• About 15 percent of people receiving food assistance from Rowan Helping Ministries are age 60 and older.

About 16 percent of people in the homeless shelter in the past year were over age 56.

• Out of 26,210 people receiving food and nutrition benefits in Rowan County, 1,590 (6 percent) are age 60 or older.

• Out of 24,275 people receiving Medicaid and supplemental security income in Rowan County, 1,651 (6.8 percent) are age 65 or older.

Sources: Comfort Keepers, North Carolina AARP and local officials

Charities offer help 

• Rowan Helping Ministries

Food, clothing and soup kitchen: 704-637-6838

Overnight shelter: 704-637-9355

226 N. Long St., Salisbury

P.O. Box 4026, Salisbury, NC 28145

Rowan Helping Ministries West: 704-633-5771

780 Grampian Road, Mount Ulla

• Salvation Army of Rowan County

Salisbury Corps: 704-636-6491

620 Bringle Ferry Road, Salisbury

Salisbury Family Store: 704-636-7587

1400 Jake Alexander Blvd. W., Salisbury

• Meals on Wheels of Rowan

Meals for homebound adults: 704-633-0352

1918 W. Innes St., Salisbury

P.O. Box 1914, Salisbury, NC 28145

• Rufty-Holmes Senior Center

Congregate nutrition program: 704-216-7702

1120 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., Salisbury

• Rowan County Department of Social Services

Food stamps and Medicaid: 704-216-8330

1813 E. Innes St., Salisbury

Food drive

Comfort Keepers in-home care is asking the community to make food donations to the STOP Senior Hunger Food Drive to help local seniors through the Feeding America network.

Food donations will be accepted throughout September, Hunger Action Month, at the following locations:

• Comfort Keepers, 512 Klumac Road, Suite 2

• Oak Park Retirement, 548 White Oaks Drive