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Food Drives, Federal Aid:Weapons Against Seniors' Hunger

June 4 expo features Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car

Two Fridays a month, a mobile food bank arrives at Robin Martin's apartment complex in Edgewater. The fresh vegetables, canned goods, milk and meat are "a godsend."

"I'll be honest. Before this, I had very little money for food after rent and medications," said Martin, 62, who uses a walker after a series of strokes.

"Guess what's cheap at the grocery store?" she said. "Junk food. That's what I ate the most of."

Martin's experience is no surprise to those who have been studying hunger in Colorado.

One in eight Colorado households sometimes lack enough money to pay for adequate amounts of food, according to the government's most recent data.

But only about a third of Colorado residents 60 and older whose income is low enough to make them eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have signed up.

AARP Colorado is joining forces with other organizations to tackle hunger, starting with reducing the barriers that stop some older people from enrolling in SNAP, formerly called food stamps.

"Part of the problem is that those SNAP forms are more than a dozen pages," said Angela Cortez, AARP Colorado communications director. "We're working with state officials now on simplifying them."

Another problem, said Morie Smile, AARP Colorado state director, is that many people in Martin's generation are embarrassed to accept government help or don't realize the benefits exist.

"We're working to get the word out and de-stigmatize it," she said. "At town halls and health fairs, we hand out literature that tells them what's out there and lets them know that many are in the same situation. There's no shame in getting help."

AARP Colorado has joined with Denver's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado to help anyone — regardless of age or sexual orientation — determine if they are eligible for various government benefits and programs.

In addition, hunger awareness is a key focus of the Boomer and Beyond Expo in Colorado Springs June 4, which will feature the No. 24 car of NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon.

The AARP Foundation, AARP, Hendrick Motorsports and Gordon have teamed for the nationwide Drive to End Hunger.

Expo attendees will be asked to contribute canned goods and nonperishable items such as cereal to benefit several food banks and pantries throughout the state.

Cortez said the state office has distributed material explaining how to launch a food drive to encourage Colorado's 27 AARP chapters to get involved.

Rachel Hernandez, director of the Senior High-Rise Food Bank, works with some of those age 55 and older who are most in need in Denver and surrounding southern counties.

The food bank has hit hard times, Hernandez said.

"We need those donations. We just don't have enough to go around."

Hernandez has witnessed plenty of hungry people in her 11 years of running the food bank.

"I know some that have eaten cat and dog food," she said. "I see a huge problem with hunger in the senior population. But … when they start to eat better, they start to feel better."

Although the food bank serves 4,000 people a month, Hernandez said, even more need help.

"Many older people can't drive, can't afford a bus, so they can't even get to the places where the food is," she said. "The cost of food is going up, and these people couldn't afford it when it was lower."

Maria Cote is a writer living in Erie, Colo.

— By Maria Cote

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