“Drivers, start your engines!” It’s always an exciting moment at the racetrack, but it’s never more exciting than at the kickoff race of the NASCAR season and the premier event of the entire year: the fabled Daytona 500. And this year, I was there, seeing my very first NASCAR race.
It was quite a show. There’s nothing like seeing a race in person, with all the sights and sounds and colors. And of course I was watching Jeff Gordon in the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet with its new paint scheme for 2014, and although he didn't make it to victory lane, his strong 4th place during a thrilling finish was well worth the long, rain-delayed wait.
But to tell you the truth, I was just as excited to take part in an event that happened on Saturday. I joined some 300 Drive to End Hunger volunteers to pack 20,000 meals for Second Harvest Food Bank of South Florida, with whom we’ve partnered before. It was the first of four meal-packing events this year that will be sponsored by Chase Credit Card Services, who are donating $100,000 of food to help us address the ongoing problem of senior hunger. Chase will also be helping us throughout the year with a generous pledge to donate 25 cents to Drive to End Hunger every time someone uses their AARP Credit Card from Chase to purchase a meal – up to a total of $1 million. That’s a lot of quarters, and every single one will help.
We will be partnering with other organizations throughout the race year as well. Drive to End Hunger has donated nearly 30 million meals since it launched in 2011, and we look forward to carrying on this legacy.
And, of course, Drive to End Hunger isn’t our only effort to help the nearly 9 million seniors who struggle with food insecurity every day.
This year we are renewing our grant to the Campus Kitchens Project, which operates more than 30 student-run kitchens in colleges and high schools across the country. Our support not only addresses the short-term goal of getting meals to people, but also fits well with our strategic efforts to find intergenerational solutions to the problems facing the 50+. Campus Kitchens is a great program, turning food that would otherwise be wasted into nutritious meals for those in need.
The problem of senior hunger only threatens to get worse as the U.S. population ages and economic challenges continue, particularly for those on fixed incomes. News out of the halls of Congress doesn’t help much either. A compromise farm bill passed by Congress has taken $8 billion out of the vital Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which many hungry seniors depend on for the most basic of their food needs.
SNAP is not only a lifeline for millions of older adult households facing hunger; it is also an economic stimulus. SNAP allows families to put food on their table, and provides food dollars that are spent locally. Every $5 spent in SNAP benefits generates up to $9 in economic activity that supports local farms, food processors and retailers. So it just doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to cut the program at all.
Here at AARP Foundation, we take such news as a stimulus to do more and to be even more vigilant in our efforts to end senior hunger. That’s why I’m so pleased that we are continuing our relationship with Americorps VISTA in our SNAP outreach program that seeks to educate the two-thirds of eligible seniors who are not currently enrolled in SNAP and help them get into the program. The VISTA volunteers, both young and old, are carrying this vital message to those in need, and our Hunger Impact team is right there with them.
So it was great to kick off another season of Drive to End Hunger. But I’m just as enthusiastic about all we’re doing, on so many fronts, to address senior hunger. It’s about as vital a mission as we could possibly have. And I invite you to join us in the effort. You can donate to Drive to End Hunger and make a difference right now, but I also encourage you to take part in your own community, by volunteering at a food bank or signing up for a meal-packing event. You might be surprised at how good it will make you feel.
Lisa Marsh Ryerson is president of AARP Foundation.