A Hunger Awareness Forum held Friday at the regional Second Harvest Food Bank in Gray put the focus on the rapidly increasing number of Northeast Tennessee residents who are receiving monthly food assistance and the even larger number of people in the region who are in need of food and not receiving assistance.
The second annual hunger forum hosted by Second Harvest included updates on recent hunger trends in the Northeast Tennessee counties served by the food bank and a discussion of the special issues of hunger faced by a growing number of seniors in need.
Featured speakers included Margot Seay, president of AARP of Tennessee, Kathy Whitaker, executive director of the First Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability, Ruth Phillips, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and Vivian Clayman, Johnson City Housing Authority resident services manager. Lester Lattany, United Way of Washington County president and CEO, served as the forum’s moderator. Special guests included Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, representatives of U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and Sen. Lamar Alexander, several Tri-Cities area mayors and commissioners, and a crowd of AARP members who came not only for the forum but for a day of volunteering in the food bank’s warehouse.
Seay opened the forum with a review of a recent AARP-sponsored study that showed 9 million older Americans and one in five Tennesseans are at risk of hunger. Seay called the numbers “staggering” and noted they include “many Baby Boomers who are too young for Social Security and too old for government food assistance to families with dependent children.
Locally, Seay said, the 200 pantries and feeding agencies in the region served by Second Harvest have experienced a 30 percent increase in the number of people they assist over the past year and are now providing food to 36,000 people every month, up from 33,000 one year ago. “Saddest of all,” she said, is that “Tennessee is rated among the top ten states in hunger in the nation.” And in East Tennessee in particular, she said, “food isolation,” or the lack of transportation and other means to access food, is prevalent.
Seay said AARP wants to help meet the local need for food and was pleased its recent “Food and Funds” drive conducted in partnership with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and area Food City stores resulted in a $10,000 contribution to the local food bank.
“It’s just a start,” she said. “We have a continuing need for food in our food banks. We need to raise funds. We need to educate seniors about SNAP (the federal Supplemental Food Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps) because many don’t know this assistance exists and continue to suffer quietly in their homes.”
Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest of Northeast Tennessee, welcomed the AARP volunteers to the food bank, noting that in the past year one-third of the local pantries and feeding agencies the food bank works with have reported at least one occasion during which they were at risk of closing because of a lack of volunteers.
Chafin also noted the 36,000 local residents who are receiving food from the agencies compares to 84,000 people in the region that a recently released Feeding America study identifies as “food insecure,” or without access to enough food to sustain life.
Clayman reported that 166 of the 350 elderly and disabled adults residing in Johnson City Housing Authority apartments receive monthly food boxes from Second Harvest that not only supplement their nutrition but also allow them to spend more of their income on other essentials, such as medicine. She said supplemental nutrition provided to the frailest seniors through the JCHA’s medical clinic also depends entirely on food from the food bank.
“That’s all the food there is for that program,” she said.
Whitaker said the AAA&D works to connect area seniors with local programs that can help them continue to live independently in their own homes and relies heavily on its partnership with the First Tennessee Human Resource Agency’s home-delivered meals and congregate feeding site programs that last year provided 142,000 meals to seniors.
Funding for both programs is limited, Whitaker said, and still the AAA&D has 1,200 seniors on its waiting list and a need for another congregate feeding site for seniors in Washington County.
In a question-and-comment session with other feeding agency representatives, Brenda Duncan with Catholic Charities in Jonesborough said the agency has seen the number of seniors it serves rise “from 20 to 30 to 160 seniors who are receiving help every month.
“And we are still having to turn them down. It’s not that we don’t want to help them. We can’t help them all. But we are trying,” Duncan said.
Addressing all other elected officials at Friday’s forum, Johnson City Commissioner Jane Myron challenged each one to focus on what their government bodies can do to help meet the increasing need for food and to attempt to take any assistance they are already providing to the next step.
“There are things we can do at this time and that is the challenge,” Myron said.