Investigations

Food insecurity puts low-income seniors in an ‘emergency situation.’ Here’s what that looks like in the Valley

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Senior citizens’ need for meal delivery services in the Mahoning Valley more than doubled after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, local elderly advocates said, and more federal funding is now needed to help local mobile meal programs meet the increased demand.

Cassandra Valentini, spokesperson for Direction Home of Eastern Ohio, said workers delivered more than 150,000 mobile meals to seniors in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana and Ashtabula counties in 2019, and more than 326,000 meals in 2020, after the arrival of the novel coronavirus.

Programs that deliver meals to seniors facing food insecurity are not a new concept, mobile meals coordinators at the Jewish Community Center in Youngstown said. But the list of local clients now in need of meal deliveries has grown and available funding hasn’t grown with it, leaving hundreds of seniors on waiting lists — some for months.

The JCC’s mobile meals program is an emergency provider of home-delivered meals for seniors for Direction Home, which connects seniors with social services in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana and Ashtabula counties, Valentini said.

Valentini said there’s not just a huge need for mobile meals programs in the Valley, but across Ohio.

“The amount of people who were homebound skyrocketed, and those people [who] used to be able to get out and go to the grocery store really should not because they were the most vulnerable,” she said.

Ken Bielecki, executive director of Jewish Family and Community Services, said requests from senior citizens for the center’s mobile meal service also spiked during the pandemic.

The program provides seniors one free meal five days a week, all of which are made at the center. Last year, it delivered more than 200,000 meals to 800 Valley seniors. But last week, coordinators reported 230 people were on a waiting list, for lack of more funding.

Bielecki said the mobile meals program doesn’t generate a lot of money, so it relies on federal funding programs like the Older Americans Act, which is meant to support services for Americans age 60 and older like meals delivered to the home or served at community centers.

“We’re not making a lot of money off of this. … We’re producing the food, buying the food and staff will go deliver the food through the Older Americans Act funding,” Bielecki said.

Federal coronavirus relief funding the center received through Direction Home is expected to keep the mobile meals program rolling through February 2022 and possibly open up its wait list — but not fast enough, he said.

“There are seniors who are 80 years old calling us wanting to get off the wait list, and they have been on there for several months,” Bielecki said.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided $2.5 million for Direction Home, which passed nearly $1 million of that on to the Jewish center, Valentini said. But that much won’t fully satisfy, she said.

“The reality of it is, those funds were not forever,” she said. “We should have always been at that level of funding is what we’re finding.”

As far as food spending in the home, hunger-relief nonprofit Feeding America estimates the three Valley counties in 2019 had a combined “food budget shortfall” of $41.2 million — that’s the amount of money it would take, on average, for food-insecure people in those counties to buy just enough food to meet their needs, adjusted for local prices and taxes.

Food insecurity is worse in the Valley

About 80,500 residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in 2019 were considered food-insecure, or 15% of the combined population, according to Feeding America. That’s above the national average, which was 10.5% that year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Feeding America reported food insecurity rates between 14% and 16% for each Valley county in 2019, and projected those rates would each increase about 1% in 2021.

A projected more than 1.8 million Ohioans lived in a food-insecure household in 2020, when food insecurity was most pronounced over the last three years, according to the agency’s projections. Only four states had more food-insecure people that year: California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Poverty is a major contributing factor to food insecurity, and the groceries themselves have become more expensive since the pandemic hit.

About a third of people living in Youngstown and Warren in 2018 had income below the poverty level — nearly 22,000 Youngstown residents and more than 13,000 Warren residents — and those cities had the highest concentrations of poverty in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by Youngstown State University and Healthy Community Partnership.

Michael Iberis, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, said the Valley’s low-income seniors are in “an emergency situation” due to food insecurity and lack of transportation to get food. About 17.3% of Youngstown residents in 2019 were age 65 or older, according to Census data.

Iberis estimated a 25% increase in the number of seniors using food pantries this year and he attributed that increase in “first-timers’‘ to rising inflation rates. The consumer price index for food items, specifically, rose from 4.6% in September to 5.3% in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — its highest point since January 2009, amid the Great Recession.

“[They] have less money to pay for the groceries,” Iberis said. “Because seniors fall within the government guidelines of the low poverty level, they can access [federally subsidized] food pantries.”

Meal delivery programs coordinated by the JCC and the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley largely operate in low-income areas. Those are also the areas where residents have less mobility, Healthy Community Partnership’s research shows.

Trekking Youngstown’s food desert

A geographic map prepared by YSU’s Department Of Geography And Urban-Regional Studies shows there were only four full-service grocery stores in Youngstown as of January 2020: Three Save-A-Lot stores along South Avenue, McCartney Road and Gypsy Lane; and one Sparkle Market along South Meridian Road — all on the city’s outskirts.

Sarah Lowry, director of Healthy Community Partnerships, said she thinks a bigger issue with local food insecurity is that residents lack reliable, personal transportation to those stores.

In 2018, there were 4,873 households in Youngstown (18%) and 2,149 households in Warren (13%) without access to a vehicle, the partnership’s research shows.

Accessing affordable and nutritious food is much more difficult for seniors with disabilities or those who are homebound and unable to get out and shop, Lowry said.

“We are continuing to look at how we bring healthy foods into neighborhoods where people are,” she said.

Lowry said the agency worked with several community partners during the pandemic to deliver groceries and meals to seniors’s homes — in the cities as well as rural regions.

“Last year, we showed [our partners] the need for taking that concept of bringing food to people to that next step, and actually doing deliveries,” she said.

The partnership also works with two physicians who act as healthy food access coordinators, working with small businesses in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties to stock healthy food items in convenience and corner stores, Lowry said.

“The selection is not going to be Giant Eagle- or Walmart-level, but some of those staple favorites … apples, oranges, onions, peppers,” she said. “Just so there’s something quick, easy, accessible and affordable.”

Summer Ylonen, one of the Jewish center’s mobile meals drivers, said she’s noticed the lack of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods like Youngstown’s North Side.

“The people on the North Side who don’t drive or have a bus route. … It’s hard for them to get full meals, and not just snacks,” she said.

Bridging the social distance

United Way feeds 300 seniors a month through its mobile meals program, but currently 50 people are on the wait list, said President Bob Hannon.

On the United Way’s Satur-Day of Caring — the third Saturday each month — volunteers home-deliver meals to residents, Hannon said.

“There’s a lot of poverty, so Youngstown is definitely a primary stop for us. … Places like Sebring, Campbell, Struthers and [North] Jackson are also areas where we take food,” he said.

For United Way, keeping that operation going requires a steady roster of volunteers.

“I think the biggest thing is to continue to be able to have the funding, which we do, but more so the capacity of enough volunteers to be able to get food out to 400 people,” Hannon said.

The program started in April 2020, with 100 meal packers and 50 delivery drivers, he said.

“We have a good group of high school [students] that have gotten involved,” Hannon said.

Hannon said the Saturday volunteers unload, pack and deliver meals from 8:30 a.m. to noon to seniors across Mahoning County — even as far as Sebring. Drivers who meet with them often learn they’re scared to leave due to the pandemic’s health and safety risks.

The personal connections delivery drivers make can go beyond handing off a meal, Ylonen said. She said drivers often create close relationships.

“We’re all trained on how to keep an eye out for any issues or resources we can provide through the [Jewish] federation — even just a welfare check,” Ylonen said.

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