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Get into the Act and Support Treasure Coast Seniors

One of the signs that summer has surely arrived along the Treasure Coast is not the steamy weather but all the talk about departed snow birds.

But the reality is that most of the 140,000 seniors in Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee, and St. Lucie counties won’t be heading north. Indeed, researchers from the University of Florida found that anywhere from 83-95% of seniors live in the Sunshine State year round.

Many seniors will remain active, productive members of our community. You’ll find them running businesses, volunteering, playing golf and tennis, and dining out.

However, there are also a sizable number of seniors struggling each and every day just to make ends meet. Too often they are forced to make decisions on whether to buy food or medication.

Last month, the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger found that the number of U.S. seniors categorized as food insecure has increased 56% since 2007, and today 15.5% of seniors face the threat of hunger. Among those hardest hit are African Americans, disabled individuals and those raising grandchildren, which now accounts for nearly 10% of all Florida households according to data from the state’s Department of Elder Affairs.

Not surprisingly, the health of food-insecure seniors is far worse than other seniors: 50% more likely to be diabetic, three times more likely to suffer from depression, 14% more likely to have high blood pressure, and nearly 60% more likely to have congestive heart failure or experience a heart attack. There is also a threat to seniors’ strong desire to remain independent and contribute.

May has been designated Older Americans Month and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act, this year’s theme is “Get Into the Act” which urges community engagement as a tool to enhancing seniors’ overall well being.

To meet this challenge, not just in May but all year long, Treasure Coast Food Bank coordinates its Senior Hope Program. At the top of our agenda is a strategy to provide seniors with a steady supply of nutritious foods. We achieve this through our Mobile Pantry, bringing healthy food directly into neighborhoods and reaching low-income seniors who live in so-called “food deserts” because they can’t regularly access affordable fruits and vegetables. In 2014, more than 50,000 local households with seniors received more than 400,000 meals from Treasure Coast Food Bank (we also distribute non-food items like adult diapers, socks, braces, bed pads, and toiletries).

Another tactic for alleviating hunger among seniors is our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach initiative. Previously known as Food Stamps, SNAP benefits are lifelines for seniors who lack the resources to purchase and access healthy food.

Unfortunately, research from AARP Florida found that a third of seniors eligible to receive SNAP benefits do not. They don’t participate for a number of reasons: lack of awareness or transportation, fear that the forms are too complicated, and most often, a stigma that makes them too proud to receive just a little extra help each month. By navigating them through the paperwork, trained Food Bank staff helps eligible seniors enroll in the program.

Our commitment to seniors is backed by the collaborations we have with agencies who work alongside our staff and volunteers all year long. And we know there are so many other organizations and individuals who seniors can count on.

But there is still more work to be done. Will you Get into the Act and make the Treasure Coast a community where all seniors experience dignity, compassion and well-being?

Judith Cruz is the Chief Executive Officer of the Treasure Coast Food Bank.