MOULTRIE — Ermia Moss eats lunch every day with her friends at the Moultrie Senior Center.
Moss, Mary Larkin, Lettie Walker and Willie Grier have tucked into a meal of steak, potatoes, mixed vegetables and a brownie.
“It’s good here,” Moss said. “The food is good here and I’m with my friends. It’s good.”
This is the norm for many seniors at the center. They eat a hot meal for lunch. They chat with each other. Then, they go home.
According to the Georgia Department of Human Services, about 300,000 seniors go hungry in the state, with Georgia ranked ninth in the country when it comes to senior food insecurity.
Georgia has become the first state in the nation to create a state plan for senior hunger.
The plan will assess challenges and strategies to ensure elderly people get the food they need, and many senior centers in the southwest Georgia area are already on board.
Across the SunLight Project coverage area, which includes Moultrie, Tifton, Thomasville, Valdosta and Dalton, senior centers are among the leading agencies meeting seniors’ food needs. Churches and charities are also involved.
The Southern Georgia Regional Senior Hunger Coalition was formed in response to the state’s senior hunger plan, said Fran Kinchen, director of the Leroy Rogers Senior Center in Tifton.
“Our coalition members represent senior centers, local farmers, non-profit organizations, faith-based organizations, providers, colleges and universities, state government and social service organizations,” Kinchen said. “We meet every quarter to address senior hunger in our region by working to pinpoint the barriers to seniors accessing food resources, identify viable resources in our communities and develop a strategy that will decrease the number of seniors who go to bed hungry at night.
"Our coalition has created a nutrition resource guide which is city/county specific.”
She said the guide will be distributed to seniors in the region as well as agencies that serve seniors by the end of the quarter.
“There is a big need for senior hunger programs in the Moultrie community,” said Brenda Carter, director of the Moultrie Senior Center. “We serve members here a hot lunch Monday through Friday. We ask for donations — and those who can, pay — but I’m not going to turn away someone who can’t.”
Carter said one of the most prominent factors of senior hunger in the Colquitt County community is low income.
“They don’t have access to food all the time, or access to healthy food at least, so that’s what the big push was up in Albany and Atlanta with the governor to create the Senior Food Coalition,” Carter said. “We have a representative from SOWEGA who is part of that council and they are focusing on transportation and making food access available to the seniors.”
Based in Albany, the Southwest Georgia Council on Aging oversees senior centers across the region, including the ones in Moultrie and Thomasville.
Wilma Hampton, 74, of Thomasville eats at Scott Senior Center almost every day. She approves of the food.
"I think they feed us some good stuff," Hampton said.
Hampton's lunch included baked chicken, wild rice, carrot salad, Brussels sprouts and cake.
Tessie Lee Taylor, 99, of Thomasville got her nails done at the Senior Center before eating lunch. Sometimes she likes the food. Sometimes it is not to her liking.
Taylor grew up in Troy, Ala. She plowed mules, cooked and sewed.
"There wasn't anything too good for me to do," she said.
Scott Senior Center in Thomasville is the largest senior center in the 14-county SOWEGA COA area, said Joan Fleetwood, who’s been director there for almost 10 years.
About 65 seniors eat daily at the senior center Monday through Friday. Thomas County Transit takes people there.
Lunches are prepared in Moultrie and transported to the Thomasville center. The senior center provides light breakfasts for people in need.
Fleetwood said she realizes the senior center lunch is the only balanced meal some might have all day. Breakfast helps those who do not have other food, she said.
"For some, it's the only meal," she said.
Scott Senior Center is state-funded through the umbrella Albany agency. Several local Sunday school classes make donations.
Good food, good price
Good food, a good price and good fellowship are what have attracted recently retired Randy Mayfield and his wife, Renea, to the Dalton-Whitfield County Senior Center each weekday for the past eight months.
"The food is wonderful, and it's just $3 for people over 50," he said.
"It's the best deal in town," she said.
"You get a full meal, dessert and tea," he said. "You can go to a restaurant and the tea alone will cost $1.99 or more."
They said they have made several new friends at the center.
"We have a group now that sits together at lunch each day, and we really enjoy the conversation and the company," Randy Mayfield said.
Jackie Orr has been coming to the senior center for about 10 years. She said she comes primarily because there's always a good bridge game.
"I don't always eat, but when I do, I've always found the food to be very good, and it's such a great deal. That's important to people on a limited income like many of the people here are," she said.
A monthly menu includes main courses of hamburger steak, salmon patties, chef salad, chicken and dressing, sloppy Joes, ham, baked fish, chicken and dumplings, glazed ham, fish sandwiches, spaghetti.
Linda Wilburn has been coming to lunch at the senior center for several years.
"I come here mostly for the fellowship, but the chance to have a full, nutritional meal is also very important to me," she said. "When you are a senior, you live on a fixed income. You have to watch every penny. This meal provides us with food and nutrition that we might not otherwise get. You can't go anywhere else and get a meat and two vegetables, dessert and drink for $3. And it's all very tasty. It's a good meal and a good deal and it comes with good fellowship."
Patty Pellom is the head cook at the senior center. She said she knows the food she prepares not only has to taste good but be nutritious.
"I used to work in a school system," she said. "Many of the children we fed that might have been the only meal they got that day. I know the same thing is true for some of these people. I try to make sure the meal is fairly substantial, so they won't get hungry again soon. I try to make sure we serve a balanced meal, nothing too greasy. Everything is made from scratch."
She said on a typical day the senior center serves 60 to 80 lunches.
While the City of Dalton and Whitfield County pay staff salaries at the senior center, money made from the diners pays for the food used by the center.
The senior center recently began serving breakfast on Wednesdays. A biscuit with ham or sausage or gravy or bacon costs seniors just $1.
Pellom says they typically serve 30 to 40 them.
Transportation and food deserts
The state division of aging services identifies transportation as an issue that must be tackled by the state hunger plan. The Southwest Georgia Council on Aging is working on it.
“Many of them don’t have a car,” said Carter, the Moultrie Senior Center director. “So, if they can’t get to the center on their own, I know they can’t get to the store to buy groceries.”
According to SOWEGA, there is also the issue of food deserts, places with a lack of grocery stores or other places to buy healthy foods.
“There’s a lot of communities in Georgia that are rural, and they don’t have access to this,” Carter said. “A third of Georgia is a food desert. This is problematic for adults living in these areas to attain fresh nutrients. Changing the direction of food insecurity requires the collaboration and cooperation of various agencies.”
In Tifton, Kinchen agreed.
“Grocery stores are closing in our communities creating food deserts in many of our rural areas, making it difficult for seniors to access nutritious food,” she said.
Meals on Wheels
In Thomasville, Fleetwood said Meals On Wheels allows seniors to stay in their homes, receive nutritious meals and have social contact during the day. People delivering the meals ensure recipients are OK.
Meals On Wheels food is prepared in Homerville and delivered daily to home-bound Thomas County seniors.
Home Delivered Meals — a variation of the Meals on Wheels program — delivers hot meals to about 50 senior citizens in the Moultrie area, Carter said.
A similar program operates through First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta. Break Bread Together started 50 years ago as part of the church’s soup kitchen.
Coordinator Beth Mathis said there are some participants who couldn’t make it to the kitchen due to age and infirmities, so the church organizes volunteers to take food to them.
Break Bread Together is completely funded through the church and donations. It doesn’t receive any state or federal money, Mathis said, adding the church doesn’t want government interference, But the program always needs donations and volunteers.
“All of the donations go toward buying the food,” Mathis said. “How many people we feed depends on how much money we receive. It’s a balancing act.”
Break Bread currently feeds 43 people who are 65 or older, low income, have little to no family support and are home bound, she said. They are typically making anywhere between $600 to $700 a month. If they qualify for food stamps, they can usually qualify for their services.
There are 65 people on the waiting list to receive one meal a day, every day of the week. People usually spend about one year on the waiting list.
The meals consist of one meat, two vegetables, milk, bread and fruit. It costs the organization $5 per meal, which means it costs $1,200 to feed one person for an entire year.
Mathis is a retired social worker who said she has always wanted to help people and make a difference. She has worked with Break Bread for three years and said she loves what she does.
She said the program is always in need of volunteers and donations. Businesses in Valdosta can "adopt a senior” by providing $100 a month to make sure someone is kept fed and individuals can give whatever they can afford. It all makes a difference, Mathis said.
Break Bread together is open 9 a.m.-noon Monday through Friday. To donate or be put on the waiting list, call (229) 249-0779 or email email@example.com.
Senior centers work with other groups to feed seniors.
Carter said there are talks of collaborating with local restaurants and farmers to meet the needs of hungry seniors.
“If a restaurant has leftover food, what are they doing with that food? Are you throwing it away? Is there a way for us to make that available to the seniors?” Carter said. “Or what if we could collaborate with local farmers and have a pop-up farmers market for our seniors?”
Some of those efforts are already under way in Tift County, where the Society of St. Andrew has an office. The agency works with farmers who allow the program to glean fields after they’ve harvested produce. The produce collected is distributed to those who need it, including seniors.
“Georgia's plan specifically lists food waste and reclamation as one of the focus areas to address senior hunger,” said Adam F. Graham, Georgia regional director of the Society of St. Andrew. “That focus area aligns with the gleaning work of the Society of St. Andrew: harvesting the fields of partner farmers to share fresh produce with hungry neighbors. Such produce would otherwise go to waste because of being ‘ugly’ or not (having) enough time to harvest it before the farmer must go to the next field.
“Much of our distribution (is) within the same community as the farm that grew it, which helps address the rural location of senior hunger. Seniors eat the fruits and vegetables the same day we pick it. The Society of St. Andrew builds caring communities through offering this nourishment. Our volunteer gleaners of all ages see the impact as the food goes into their own communities. Faith-based partners use our curriculum and devotional literature to connect their actions with their beliefs of a world where hunger is met by grace and abundance.”
Food banks are also a resource for seniors, as they are for anyone in the community with a proven need.
"We're under government guidelines," said Janice Anderson, longtime volunteer and president of the Thomas County Food Bank & Outreach Center.
Guidelines include proof of identification, income and address.
Seniors receive canned goods, frozen chickens and hot dogs, among other items. The amount of food received depends on the size of a household.
"Flowers has been providing our bread since we opened in 1998," said Anderson, a retired Flowers vice president.
Anderson said 35-40 percent of food bank clients are older than 55 years old.
Orders are filled by personnel and volunteers and taken to recipients' vehicles at the 430 N. Broad St. facility.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides food to the food bank, and food is purchased from Second Harvest at a reduced rate.
The SunLight Project team who contributed to this report includes Savannah Donald and Kevin Hall in Moultrie, Eve Copeland-Brechbiel in Tifton, Tom Lynn in Valdosta, Patti Dozier in Thomasville and Charles Oliver in Dalton.