JFS, MAZON partner to help hungry seniors

JFS, MAZON partner to help hungry seniors

SunSentinel.com

An alarming numbers of U.S. senior citizens (including many throughout the tri-county area) are either unaware of — or ignore — governmental support they are eligible for to get the food they need to alleviate their hunger and stay healthy.

This issue has reached a critical point as 10,000 "Baby Boomers" turn 65 every day with 56 percent of U.S. retirees having outstanding debt. One in three seniors is "food insecure" ("having limited access to adequate food") and/or disabled. Thirty percent must choose between food and medicine.

According to Abby Leibman, president/CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, one in six seniors lives in poverty and 65 percent of seniors eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) funds do not use them.

MAZON is the only national Jewish organization focused exclusively on issues of hunger and is considered one of the leading anti-hunger organizations in the U.S. 

Leibman said: "There are a number of reasons seniors are not taking advantage of this help. Too often, it's a reluctance to accept government assistance. While that may be understandable, it's important to remember that they've supported these programs as taxpayers for many years and the programs are there to help them now. Others are simply unaware of the benefits."

To combat these problems, MAZON has launched a campaign in seven states to educate seniors and their families about available benefits. The outreach program is sponsored by MAZON, with funding from the Walmart Foundation.

Locally, Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services (JFS) in Boca Raton and Delray Beach is one of 13 JFS agencies in seven states which are taking part in MAZON's "Senior Hunger Initiative." The initiative's purpose is to alert seniors and their families to these benefits as well as lift any shame they might have in accepting them.

Leibman said: "The goal of this outreach is to dramatically reduce the alarming statistics. The belief that the community has an obligation to sustain its most vulnerable is deeply embedded in Jewish tradition. It is unacceptable that a rising number of our nation's seniors struggle to put meals on the table when we have programs, like SNAP, that could help them buy nutritious food."

According to a U.S. Census Bureau demographic study, Palm Beach County has a higher percentage of seniors (22 percent) than any U.S. county of comparable size. Furthermore, the greatest concentration of seniors age 85 and older live in South Palm Beach County, the JFS service area.

Three zip codes in the JFS catchment area (33444, 33445 and 33484) also were identified by the Area Agency on Aging as high-needs areas based on poverty level, disability status and minority status.

Furthermore, three of the largest lower-income retirement communities in Palm Beach County (Kings Point, Delray Beach; Century Village, Boca Raton; and Villages of Oriole, Delray Beach) are all within a few miles from the JFS Shirley & Barton Weisman Delray Community Center in Delray Beach.

Said Danielle Hartman, JFS president and CEO: "A large percentage of these seniors live in proximity to our center, so we hope that those eligible for SNAP will avail themselves of this benefit. We are ready to help them negotiate the steps to get the food support they need."

For information about SNAP benefits for eligible seniors, call JFS at 561-852-3333.

On Veterans Day, we honor those who have served and sacrificed for our country. This holiday is especially meaningful in Alaska, home to the highest number of veterans per capita of any state. As we honor our military, both past and present, with ceremonies and speeches, let’s also commit to honoring in deed the many veterans, along with active-duty families, who are struggling to put enough food on the table.

As a veteran myself, I understand the challenges that military life presents: frequent and sometimes sudden relocations, isolation and separation from family and friends, dangerous and stressful combat situations. Military life is tough, and military families give up a lot in service to our country. It is shameful that any service member or vet would be rewarded for these sacrifices by having to struggle to adequately feed their families.

We know from our extensive 2014 Hunger in America-Alaska Report that 23 percent of families served by the statewide Food Bank of Alaska network have at least one veteran in the household. This means that nearly a quarter of all families visiting our food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs have a former serviceman or woman in the home. What’s more, we know that many of our active duty military families are also turning to the charitable food sector for help. Statewide, 3 percent of families we are helping with food assistance are active duty military. In Anchorage, with its large military population, this figure is closer to 6 percent.

We have to do better. These are men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country and they deserve better than to skip meals, so they can pay the rent or keep the heat on. A just country does not allow its defenders and their families to struggle with this indignity. They have served us; it is now time for us to serve them. 

Fortunately, the critical issue of food insecurity among our veterans and active duty military has been getting some of the attention that it deserves. Both anti-hunger advocates and members of Congress have been looking at ways to make federal nutrition programs, like SNAP (formerly food stamps), more readily accessible to veterans and members of the military. The Government Accountability Office recently began a study looking at the challenges of food insecurity for active duty military families, including a barrier to eligibility for SNAP. Thank you to Sen. Lisa Murkowski for helping to address this in an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that she co-sponsored. On Nov. 18, there will be a pair of congressional briefings sponsored by Food Bank of Alaska’s partner MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger focusing on veterans’ food insecurity. These briefings will highlight the high rates of food insecurity among veterans and their low rates of participation in SNAP, in an effort to call attention to and, we hope, correct this gap.

I believe that one of the best ways to show respect and care for our veterans is to ensure they have the basic resources to support their families. We have strong allies in Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, who have all been active and engaged on the issue of veteran and military hunger. Please let their offices know that this is an issue that you care about too. You can also help by supporting programs that serve veterans, and remember that this includes your local food pantry and Food Bank of Alaska. Our military deserves better than having to face hunger. Our vets and their families have given enough to our country already -- isn’t it time we gave back to them? 

Mike Miller is executive director of Food Bank of Alaska and a retired US Air Force master sergeant. Food Bank of Alaska collected and distributed 6.8 million pounds of food in 2015 through 300 partner food pantries and meal programs statewide and advocates for policies to end hunger.

Alaska Dispatch News - November 9, 2015