Food or medicine? That’s the stark choice many older Americans face.
Nearly 9 million people 50 and older face the risk of hunger, representing an astounding 79 percent increase between 2001 and 2009, reports a study by AARP Foundation (PDF). Food insecurity strikes minorities, including Hispanics, especially hard. The 2011 study found that “Hispanic 50- to 59-year-olds had a sustained level of food insecurity that was double or more their white counterparts,” and about one in seven Latinos between 50 and 70 struggle with very low food security, a severe condition defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a disruption of normal eating patterns (such as skipping meals).
Hispanics are also under-enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal government’s primary safety net program to provide food aid. Research shows that Hispanics often turn to their families or “make ends meet with the little that they have,” rather than accessing programs designed to fight hunger, said Hiram Lopez-Landin, an analyst for AARP Foundation’s Hunger Impact team. “They really don’t talk about something that is happening in their community.”
“We intend to be instrumental in shaping the conversation,” vows Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “We intend to be mindful of the disparities in different populations and how those barriers can be broken down.”
As part of its response to this worsening crisis, AARP Foundation joined LATINO Magazine to launch No Más Hambre (No More Hunger) in 2011. The multipronged campaign helps raise awareness of hunger in the Hispanic community and drive that awareness into action. In addition to publishing editorials and articles about food insecurity in the pages of LATINO and on the No Más Hambre website, the Foundation has sponsored forums across the country and an annual national summit to unite and galvanize leading anti-hunger advocates.
The core of No Más Hambre involves local forums and events held in cities with large Hispanic populations, such as Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Panels focus on topics such as cultural barriers and immigration status that prevent many people from receiving food assistance, as well as the link between poor diet and chronic diseases that afflict the Latino population: diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
In Austin, Texas, the Foundation helped underwrite Tacorama, a week-long celebration of the humble taco in May 2012. In addition to a local No Más Hambre forum and a food drive, several of Austin’s top restaurants featured a signature taco on their menus. Patrons then voted for “best taco” online, a prize won by Tamale House East’s chicken mole taco.
No Más Hambre forums in smaller cities like Charlotte have proved particularly successful, said Lopez-Landin. In a metropolis, such as New York City, he explains, many anti-hunger advocates are already communicating and acting in concert. But in Charlotte, he recalled, “folks who had been working on the same issue miles from one another did not know about each other until the day of the forum.”
Donald Herring, senior services director at the YWCA, San Gabriel Valley, in Covina, California, which runs programs that feed between 1,000 and 1,500 people per day, sees No Más Hambre as a rare opportunity to exchange new ideas with colleagues. “It’s always helpful” to make new contacts, said Herring, who spoke last year at a forum in Los Angeles. Managers of established food programs sometimes contend with tunnel vision, he acknowledges, while gatherings like No Más Hambre enable participants to “think outside the box.” At the Los Angeles forum, he learned that many organizations in his region now grow fruits and vegetables and then serve fresh produce to clients. “I didn’t know that was happening quite to the extent it was,” said Herring, who is open to establishing a similar venture in the future.
Jessica Powers, director of WhyHunger’s National Hunger Clearinghouse, spoke last year at a No Más Hambre panel in New York City. She commends the forums for sending hungry seniors a compelling message: “You have worked hard your whole life and paid [taxes], and [SNAP] is a benefit you are entitled to when you need some help.”
Powers also applauds No Más Hambre for debunking common misconceptions about food aid recipients. For instance, many Americans blame elderly SNAP recipients for not saving enough for retirement, “but a variety of things could have happened,” said Powers. “There could have been unexpected medical bills; there could have been a grandchild that they needed to take care of that they weren’t expecting; they could have lost a lot of money in their 401(k)” during the recession. She believes No Más Hambre events -- which receive significant media attention -- educate people about “the difference between perception and reality.”
Dispelling misconceptions, raising awareness, sharing strategies and helping to facilitate grassroots efforts to get nutritious food to those in need – it’s an approach that has defined No Más Hambre since its inception. Moving forward, AARP Foundation and LATINO Magazine remain committed to working in all these ways to end senior hunger in the Hispanic community.