Harlem residents line up at a community food pantry (287213)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives we tend to focus on the number of lives lost. Lately, we have also become preoccupied with the number of infections related to school reopenings. However, there is a larger humanitarian crisis that has unfolded from the beginning of the pandemic, a crisis that predates the pandemic, a hunger crisis.

Food is a basic need and a human right that is essential to our survival. Apart from the air that we breathe, food and potable water are the next most vital requirements. Unfortunately, for many elderly New Yorkers food insecurity is their reality.

According to the Feeding America website report, “The State of Senior Hunger in America” released in 2020, there were 5.3 million senior citizens with food insecurity in America based on data collected in 2018. Citymeals.org states that of the 1.4 million New Yorkers over age 60, one-third are below the poverty line, while foodbanknyc.org states that 20 percent of all seniors are supported by food pantries and soup kitchens. These statistics are pre-pandemic. As many people experience increased financial insecurity, the number of seniors experiencing food insecurity has also increased.

As a public health student and someone who previously worked for many years with the geriatric population, I know all too well how detrimental this crisis can be to the elderly population. I believe in caring for our seniors holistically. Even more, I believe that before all other needs can be met, their basic needs must first be addressed––and their dignity maintained.

There are numerous factors that contribute to senior food insecurity which are syndemic. Many seniors have illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. These conditions require special diets. Some may also have disabilities, visual impairments, and mental health concerns. These conditions may also preclude some from being able to access resources necessary for their survival. Some may not have transportation to even get to a soup kitchen or food bank. Further, some seniors may fall into the category of illegal immigrants and may not have necessary identification to even attempt to access resources as identification cards may be required by some organizations. There were also cuts to food stamp programs by the government which also left this population vulnerable. Compound that with the fact that the elderly population are at grave risk for COVID-19 infection, which results in many staying home to stay safe thereby further limiting their access to supplies and we have a larger crisis than pre-pandemic.

New York City has a plethora of churches and other non-governmental agencies working hard to supply vulnerable populations like the elderly. Often what is missing is the link between seniors and the agencies which can provide them with the service they require. Many of these organizations like medcouncilpantry.com provide the option for grocery deliveries. Some organizations provide prepared meals while others service more than one New York City borough.

When the Flint, Michigan water crisis occurred that city, through their own reporting network, was able to amass a database of the most vulnerable individuals within the city which they were able to utilize during the pandemic as they provided vital services for that specific population. New York City needs a similar system for our vulnerable elderly population, regardless of status that can link this at risk population with social service or non-law enforcement agencies which can step in to address their hunger issues and connect them with the appropriate food service institutions to meet their needs. For example, the senior center my aunt visits contacted everyone in their database when the pandemic began to offer weekly deliveries of seven cooked meals. Something similar should be done. The city can also network with churches and other religious institutions to offer more support to vulnerable seniors since many seniors are often members of religious organizations. Many senior citizen centers also partner with pantries and soup kitchens to provide food for seniors. More funding can be provided to support their efforts.

It is not enough to expect neighbors and family members to check on seniors during this crisis as many are facing similar circumstances. Further, some may not know how to access the resources seniors need. As such, just as we have contact tracing to track who is infected, let us find out whose basic need for food is not being met and ensure they are cared for. A society is only as great as the poor within its’ midst. Let us make food insecurity for our seniors and other vulnerable populations a thing of the past.

Sharon Billey is a student in the Master of Public Health program at SUNY Downstate.