By Karen Yekel
HOT SPRINGS – Every day, seniors in our community go hungry, in what the organization Feeding America calls “food insecurity among seniors.” In South Dakota, the going rate is 5.4 percent of the population. Compared to our neighboring states, Nebraska weighs in at 6.4 percent, Wyoming at 6.8 percent, and on the low end, North Dakota at 4.1 percent.
A recent AARP study reported that more than 10 million older adults in the U.S. face the threat of hunger every day. If you’re surprised by that statistic, you’re not alone. Even though senior hunger exists in every community across the country, it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets.
That’s why April has been designated Senior Hunger Awareness Month, to call attention to the fact that too many vulnerable older adults don’t know where their next meal is coming from and to build an awareness of the important programs and services that provide meals to people who are hungry. AARP calls hunger a health issue, reporting, “Seniors who are food insecure are 50 percent more likely to have diabetes, 60 percent more likely to have congestive heart failure or heart attack, and three times more likely to suffer from depression. Beyond the individual toll, there’s also a societal one, as hunger costs the U.S. healthcare system $130.5 billion annually.”
Often, hungry seniors have to choose between healthcare and food, creating a constant cycle of fear and insecurity about when and where they might have their next meal.
Locally, we have Meals on Wheels (MOW), long known as the home delivery daily meal service. Greg Foust, local site council treasurer, says he believes there is a hunger problem here. “Part of my role here is to support the management of MOW and stay in touch with the residents who are getting meals, and recruit clients,” said Foust. Local MOW sites include the Brookside Apartments, The Evans, and the Hot Springs Senior Center. Since November 2017, the meals have been prepared in Rapid City in a rented commercial kitchen near the Civic Center. A trip to see the kitchen and interview the director and kitchen manager proved fruitful, as the discovery of mass-produced quality food and ingredients was a sight to behold. Workers with gloved hands prepared trays of food for freezing individual portions. “These are called second meals that are chilled or frozen, offering the same healthy food we prepare throughout the week, that people can prepare in the microwave. All meals are low sodium and contain one-third of the recommended daily intake,” said George Larson, executive director of the MOW region that serves 36 communities in western South Dakota. Larson said that a microwave oven can be provided for those who need one. In the huge kitchen, blast chillers at four or five below zero are filled with meals. As the meals are prepared, they are packaged as an assortment that includes two meals a day, which are frozen for future preparation.
Where does the money to feed all these people come from during these times of tightening welfare-related program budgets? Funding for MOW comes from every source imaginable, Larson said. “Our cost is eight dollars a meal, all inclusive. We get about four dollars from federal and state, about two dollars a meal from other sources such as United Way, and grants, and the rest from private donations,” he said. Diners pay what they can for their meals, and nobody is turned away. In Hot Springs, Theresa Gossel from First Interstate Bank has organized several fundraisers for MOW, the most recent on March 16, which netted $1,420.15 for the organization. Monies collected from last week’s Spring Fling will be added to the coffers as well.
There’s no minimum or maximum number of days people can get food delivered, Monday through Friday and most of the delivery drivers are volunteers, according to Larson. “We have about 750 volunteers across the 36 communities we serve. In Rapid every single day we have about 25 who just deliver meals. Others help at the individual sites. Some volunteers help out with the second meals that we prepare,” he said.
Larson said the goal for Hot Springs is to establish a commercial kitchen in Hot Springs. “That would give us a southern hills hub so we can provide for Hot Springs and the entire southern hills, with trucks based out of there,” he said.
Currently, MOW shares kitchen space with the senior center, and the small kitchen at the Brookside, where most meals are delivered in bulk instead of individual portions, and site supervisors portion and serve the meals. Larson said, “We stop in Fairburn, Buffalo Gap, Oral, and Smithwick as well,” which leads to his dream of reaching as many hungry people as possible.
In addition to MOW, other resources are available locally. The Hot Springs Ministerial Association sponsors our local food pantry, managed by Chris Martin, who said they serve about 300 residents a month. “We can always use food donations or cash for buying food,” said Martin. He said in particular they can use rice, dried beans, and noodles, and other non-perishable dry goods. While their fresh food options are limited, Martin said they do stock some frozen foods, canned goods, bread, and paper products as well. The food pantry, located in the Sandstar Building, is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 1pm to 3pm. “We serve anybody over 21 years old, Martin said, “And they have to show proof of residency. We don’t turn anybody away who is in need.” Martin said people with donations who are unable to deliver to the pantry can call him after hours at 605-430-6045, and he would be more than happy to pick up their donations.
Edgemont offers a meals program at its senior center, with meals made in-house Monday through Friday.
And in Oelrichs, The Office restaurant offers a senior special Monday through Friday, because “there isn’t anything else,” said owner Jessica Hamar. “Our state funding disappeared, she said, “And we get a little help from the county.” She gives the locals a hearty, homemade four-course meal at a deeply discounted rate. “It’s important for our locals, she said, “And I try to give them a well-rounded meal.”
So, while there are options, there are still many hungry people in your county, maybe in your neighborhood, your classroom, your place of business, in the grocery store. Share your resources in whatever way works for you, with monetary donations to our local purveyors of food for the hungry, or food donations to the food pantry, or buying the groceries of the person in front of you who’s choosing pet food over human food. Be aware of who’s in your surroundings.
In this nation of excess, no senior should go hungry.
Photos by Karen Yekel /Fall River County Herald
Theresa Gossel, left, delivers a check to Greg Foust, local Meals on Wheels administrator, totaling $1,420.15. In spite of a vicious snowstorm more than 85 people came out for a homemade meatloaf dinner on March 16, and many stopped to make donations. “I really want to thank everyone who donated, and who participated, in the event, all the businesses and individuals,” said Gossel, event organizer. Featured with Gossel and Foust are members of the American Legion No. 71 auxiliary, Jeanie Harper, auxiliary president, Carol Harvey, district two president, Mary Ann Ackerman, Judy Sweet, and Kim Geer, with post adjutant Don Ackerman in the background. At this past Saturday’s Spring Fling, $520.80 was raised for the program that provides meals for those in need.