Addressing senior food insecurity is a critical need nationwide, but especially in Memphis

This is the first in our new series on senior food insecurity. It’s a topic that is especially important in the greater Memphis area, which has the third highest senior food insecurity rates in the country. There are a lot of challenges associated with senior food insecurity, but local organizations like MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association) are taking a proactive approach to providing solutions.

Looking out at the congregation of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, as he’s done since 2010, Dr. Stephen Cook, Senior Pastor, has witnessed what it’s like to grow old in America – and it’s not great. It’s an epidemic of loneliness, as he calls it, and it’s not getting any better on its own.

As our health and abilities diminish over time, all too often our social and family circles shrink, too. The resulting isolation leads to any number of health and wellness challenges, and beset upon a population that doesn’t always have the resources to find or fund solutions. And senior food insecurity, an issue that is especially prevalent here in Memphis, compounds those challenges to make matters much, much worse.

Being unable to access healthy and nutritious food — be it because of challenges resulting from issues of health, mobility, transportation, being on a fixed income, or a lack of fresh groceries available within a community itself — leads to direct consequences for our senior neighbors’ health and wellness. A negative feedback loop forms and, once it does, it can be awfully hard to stop it.
Dr. Stephen Cook, Senior Pastor at Second Baptist Church and Chair on the MIFA Board of Directors.
“Seniors in our congregation, and American congregations in general, are graying rapidly,” says Dr. Cook. “I see firsthand the epidemic of loneliness that exists among our senior populations. We have advanced medical science that makes it so we have a much greater quantity of life than we've known in past generations, but that doesn't always translate into a quality of life.”

That’s certainly true in Memphis. Published in April 2023, the most recent State of Senior Hunger in America study from the national nonprofit organization Feeding America puts greater Memphis’ senior food insecurity rate at 15.4 percent, placing it third among U.S. metropolitan areas. With nearly 65 percent of its population being Black residents, and another 8 percent being Latino, it’s no wonder Memphis ranks so high. Systemic racism results in BIPOC communities that are more likely to experience food insecurity. As Feeding America finds in their report, “In 2021, Black seniors were 3.8 times as likely and Latino seniors were 3 times as likely to experience food insecurity compared to white seniors.”

It’s a troubling report that doesn’t make you feel better about the future either: Nationwide, there were 5.5 million senior citizens who were food insecure in 2021 and Feeding America estimates that number could top 7 million by 2050. That’s because, as Dr. Cook points out, the U.S. is graying rapidly. A U.S. Census Bureau report on aging shows that the U.S. population of people 65-years-old and older has increased approximately 1,000 percent from 1920 to 2020 or, as they put it, “In 2020, about 1 in 6 people in the United States were age 65 and over. In 1920, this proportion was less than 1 in 20.”

There are a number of reasons for that, including the Baby Boomer generation currently reaching their senior years and a century’s worth of advances in medical science and healthcare. But, to paraphrase Dr. Cook, a greater quantity of years doesn’t necessarily result in a greater quality of years. So while medical science continues to advance at its well-funded pace, a more grassroots and proactive approach has proven necessary for improving the quality of those additional years.

That’s where the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association comes in.

‘There’s work to be done’

Founded in 1968 in the days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) joined Memphis’ church and community leaders together in a united effort to deliver solutions for Memphians challenged by poverty, hunger, and social division. The organization has since developed into a professional social service nonprofit, with at-risk seniors and families at the heart of its efforts. Combatting senior food insecurity is among its highest priorities, and in doing so fulfills the organization’s mission to promote independence, health, and dignity for our elder neighbors, friends, and family members.

“Addressing food insecurity is a critical need that exists in our community,” says Dr. Cook, who, in addition to his role as Senior Pastor at Second Baptist, serves as Chair on the MIFA Board of Directors.

“The disparities that are present are a call for us to respond; not simply to the immediate needs of feeding those who are hungry, but also in assessing and attempting to adjust the structures and the structural inequalities that make it such that there are so many hungry neighbors. And there's work to be done in order to ensure that all of our neighbors have access to food. It’s a basic human need, and it also seems a basic human right that people would be able to eat.”

MIFA offers a host of programs that delivers on their mission to promote independence, health, and dignity among our seniors.

To the general public, MIFA is likely most recognizable for their involvement in the Meals on Wheels initiative, a nationwide program responsible for delivering free and nutritious meals to more than 2.2 million seniors each year. It’s MIFA that administers the program locally, delivering hundreds of thousands of meals to Shelby County seniors annually. It’s no exaggeration; in the 2023 fiscal year, MIFA Meals on Wheels served more than 737,000 meals to 4,418 seniors throughout the county. MIFA prepares the meals in a professional kitchen from their Vance Avenue headquarters, arranges daily deliveries with the help of their dedicated team of volunteers, and, in addition to providing nutritious meals for seniors in need, provides friendly respite from the isolation that all to many seniors face in their daily lives.
Arnetta Stanton Macklin, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer for MIFA.
It takes a lot of work, logistics, and funding to provide such an essential service to those in need, says Arnetta Stanton Macklin, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer for MIFA. And even with federal funding behind it, that still doesn’t cover all the associated costs of the program. That’s why MIFA is participating in the March for Wheels initiative, inviting local officials and community stakeholders to Meals on Wheels events throughout the month of March as they gain first-hand experience of the work involved and the people who both volunteer for and benefit from the program. When the mayor plans to participate in a day's volunteer work, as Memphis Mayor Paul Young is scheduled to do on Monday, March 25, it helps raise the profile of the organization as they fundraise throughout the year. And fundraising is critical to MIFA ably carrying out its mission.

“The engagement department works really closely with the meals department as well as our fundraising department, because the meal does not totally get reimbursed from the federal government,” says Stanton Macklin. The Older Americans Act of 1965 provides federal funding to programs like Meals on Wheels, but doesn't cover all of the costs.

“It’s actually about $10 for us to have one meal delivered to a senior, from purchasing to preparation to actual delivery, and we only get reimbursed $8 from our vendor. So that means it’s about $2 per meal that we have to fundraise.”

It gets personal

Their work doesn’t stop with the Meals on Wheels program, as mighty as it may be. MIFA offers a host of programs that delivers on their mission to promote independence, health, and dignity among our seniors, including a Long-Term Care Ombudsman program that advocates for residents of long-term care facilities. Even programs that are seemingly benign by comparison meet the needs of our seniors in important ways. One such program provides tablets to isolated seniors so they can more easily connect with loved ones and the outside world. Another provides pet food for seniors’ most loyal companions, a program developed after MIFA staff learned that many seniors-in-need would slyly use the Meals on Wheels program to feed their pets instead of themselves. Now both seniors and their pets have access to nutritious food, and without one having to sacrifice for the other.

Other programs extend to Memphis families in need, including emergency utility, rent, and mortgage assistance, and connecting homeless families with shelters, permanent housing, and more.

For all the work they do, senior food insecurity remains a priority as MIFA continually works to develop new ways to feed more people. One such program debuts this April, where participating restaurants will provide diners the opportunity to learn more about MIFA and Meals on Wheels in a QR code-driven fundraising campaign dubbed Spring for a Meal, which runs Friday, April 5, through Friday, April 12. Later that month, MIFA plans a series of volunteer appreciation events in recognition of their dedicated team.

Volunteers are critical to the MIFA mission.

It’s also a team that includes seniors themselves, supplied with nutritious meals and first-hand knowledge of the difference MIFA programs make in the lives of our elders.

“We survey the seniors and they tell us that they're actually able to stay in their homes longer (because of Meals on Wheels), that it may be the only meal that they have that day, and the person that's delivering the meal may be the only person that they see,” Stanton Macklin says.

So it’s not just nutritious food that they’re delivering, but dignity and independence, too.

“On a personal level, my grandparents lived in the home that they physically built themselves,” says Dr. Cook. “They lived in that home up until both of my grandparents had passed away, a home of which they were very proud because of what they had put into it. As social trends have changed, people don't necessarily live in the same community where they've been raised perhaps as often as they had in past eras of American life. My mom and my uncles, they moved and lived at greater distances away. And it was a Meals on Wheels program in their community that played a key role in their later years of life. It afforded them being able to stay in that home that they loved so dearly.”

Visit Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association online to learn more about their work to combat senior food insecurity, the Meals on Wheels program itself, and more.

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