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Rural Health Information Hub

May 15, 2013

Food Programs Aim to Help Specific Populations: Rural Elderly and Children Often the Most Vulnerable to Hunger

by Candi Helseth

When children at Whitney Point Preschool plant sweet potatoes, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and basil in their classroom every spring, they join a community effort that last year reaped 4,869 pounds of produce from the Lisle Community Garden in Lisle, NY. The garden's harvest is given away to area needy families and senior citizens. The community project benefits food insecure households with highly vulnerable members: children and seniors.

Vegetables harvested from gardens run by Lisle Community Garden in Lisle, NY, are given to senior centers and needy families in the area.

“A large body of research has documented that children living in food insecure households face elevated risks of problematic health and long-term development outcomes,” says Mark Nord, a food security researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “These children have more physical health problems such as colds, headaches and anemia, higher hospitalization rates, reduced physical function, poor achievement in school and increased rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.”

On the other side of the age spectrum, seniors are more vulnerable because poor nutrition or failure to eat regularly exacerbates existing health conditions. “Seniors have higher rates of chronic disease, are more frail, and can more quickly lapse into deeper food insecurity, and disabilities or conditions that threaten their health,” says Edward Frongillo, a food security researcher and chairman of the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina.

Poor nutrition frequently accompanies food insecurity because low-income households' food choices are often based on cost over health. In the three counties served by the Rural Health Network of SCNY (RHN), high poverty rates and limited accessibility to fresh, healthy foods (see Food Deserts) contribute to eating patterns that largely consist of inexpensive, heavily processed foods, said RHN Community Health Services Director Leslie Kannus.

To encourage good nutrition, community garden volunteers distribute nutritional information and healthy recipes with gifts of fresh produce. AmeriCorps members associated with RHN incorporate nutritional instruction into the preschool planting curriculum.

“The lessons help the children know they are not alone and there are places they can get food when they are hungry,” AmeriCorps member Carly Ambrose said. “At harvest time, we encourage them to try these new foods that we make with them at school. They take produce home to their families too.”

The preschoolers tend their seedlings indoors until it's time to transplant them in the school's outdoor raised beds. Their planting projects continue with additional vegetables being planted outdoors. Ambrose said children are especially excited about their beans this year because community garden volunteers constructed tepees for the beans to climb, “making a little secret garden that the preschoolers can play in.”

Lisle Community Garden is operated by volunteers of all ages who also plant and nurture produce in various plots around town. The collective community goal is to grow as much produce as possible to give to those in need. RHN coordinates the preschool program using Hunger Education materials developed by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (FBST). FBST serves six counties, including those in RHN's area.

Backpack and Other Food Programs Reach School-Age Children

Kids' Cafes—this one run by South Plains Food Bank in Lubbock, Tex.—offer children food, fun and healthful advice.

Kids' Cafe and the BackPack Program are among FBST's youth outreach programs. Sponsored by Feeding America, these programs provide nutritious food for low-income children when they do not have access to school meal programs. Kids' Cafes are usually established where kids already congregate after school. Backpack programs focus on nutritious, easy-to-prepare foods that children take home on weekends, holidays and/or during the summer. According to Feeding America, Kids' Cafes annually serve 122,000 children and the BackPack Program about 230,000 children nationwide.

“Backpack programs look a little different from one food bank to another and are run differently depending on the region,” FBST President and CEO Natasha Thompson said. “This program is especially critical for kids we serve because we have a very high percentage of kids living in rural areas that meet income levels for this program. Rural families have a harder time accessing other services we provide.”

Teachers discreetly place food in children's personal backpacks every Friday. Thompson said privacy is stressed so children receiving services don't feel singled out. So far, FBST works with 33 school districts to distribute 1,800 backpacks weekly. Thompson said the program will be expanded to all 41 school districts.

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks' (OAF) 12 regional food banks raise and spend about $14 million a year supporting a school-year backpack partnership with 500 Ohio schools. With additional monies approved this year, OAF is exploring new delivery strategies to get more food into rural areas where there are no summer programs, said OAF Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt.

In a small Texas town, Abbie, six, appreciates the Kids' Cafe co-located with the Boys and Girls Club she attends after school. “We don't have very much food at home,” she says. “I go to bed hungry sometimes. I always know I will get food here. Sometimes my friends are hungrier than I am, so I share my food with them.”

Abbie benefits from one of 18 Kids' Cafe sites sponsored by South Plains Food Bank (SPFB) based in Lubbock. SPFB, which covers 32 heavily rural counties, served 91,865 meals and snacks at Kids' Cafe sites in 2012. To encourage children to develop healthy eating habits, SPFB Child Nutrition Coordinator Tammy Hester presents monthly education and food demonstrations at every site. About 33 percent of children served by SPFB live in areas with limited access to quality food purchases. “We're trying to help these kids learn to want and appreciate eating healthy food,” Hester said.

SPFB also operates a backpack program at three rural Kids' Cafe sites and distributes children's lunches and snacks at no cost to 28 sites in six counties during the summer months.

Hunger Rising Among Rural Seniors

As part of its Mobile Food Pantry Program, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (FBST) takes its trucks to senior housing complexes.

Among the senior population, hunger or food insecurity is on the increase, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. Research done by the Meals On Wheels Association of America (MOWAA) indicates seniors at risk of hunger have evolved to include younger seniors and more seniors with incomes above the federal poverty line. MOWAA is the largest national organization representing senior nutrition programs in all 50 states, providing more than one million daily meals through congregate locations, senior centers and home deliveries.

Many food banks also sponsor senior programs. Through its Mobile Food Pantry Program, FBST distributed 2,817,228 pounds of food at 575 distributions in 2012. When the food bank's service to seniors 65 and over increased by 46 percent in the first year, FBST responded by initiating a senior mobile pantry.

“We started taking our trucks to senior housing complexes,” Thompson explained. “Where there are seniors with mobility issues, we engage volunteers to carry the food into their apartments. Going to where they live works well because it's nearly impossible for seniors to get to a pantry that is miles away. There's also a real stigma among seniors that makes it harder to reach them. But when this big truck comes to town, it's a fun, exciting community event.”

In the last five years, Ohio has seen a 37.6 percent increase in the number of seniors using food bank services. Hamler-Fugitt credits targeted programs such as food box deliveries to homebound seniors, partnerships with home health to offer grocery shopping for homebound seniors, and distribution of farmers' market produce to eligible seniors.

West Ohio Food Bank (WOFB) CEO Gary Bright said they deliver about 1,400 USDA sponsored food boxes every month and then rely on local donations to cover food box deliveries for additional seniors in need that don't meet USDA criteria. He added that the need keeps increasing and they have a waiting list.

Stigma, Isolation Create Ongoing Challenges in Food Distribution

Reaching rural food insecure children and seniors effectively is an ongoing challenge, according to Frongillo. Food assistance programs are very unevenly distributed across the country, particularly in rural areas, he said. Research indicates that accepting assistance can be even more stigmatizing in rural areas than it is in urban populations. Access is more difficult for the most vulnerable populations. Children are dependent on parents or other adults to recognize their need and obtain assistance for them. Rural seniors are typically more isolated, may lack transportation and are simply less likely to accept assistance.

“Seniors have a different mindset,” Frongillo explained. “They grew up poor or they have made it through other bad times and they discount their current situation as being less serious than it is. They resist government assistance. They are more likely to accept help from programs like food pantries where they view it as more of a neighbor helping neighbor situation.”

Overall, Frongillo concluded, food insecurity is not only bad for children and seniors, but also bad for American society as a whole. When the most vulnerable populations have too little to eat, these age groups are more likely to develop physical and social problems that require treatment. That, in turn, increases the nation's health care costs—and the need for additional assistance programs.

Back to: Spring 2013 Issue