“I’m hungry. Can you help?”

The face of hunger is often the wide-eyed and teary gaze of a small child. Children across America go to bed hungry every night, but they aren’t the only ones.

Here in Georgia senior citizens are suffering, too, often forced to choose between buying food and purchasing needed medications.

Georgia currently ranks tenth in the nation for senior hunger, according to a recent report from the Dept. of Human Resources. When DHS first prioritized senior hunger three years ago, Georgia was ninth in the nation.

“Senior hunger is now a priority for the state,” says Shawn Taylor, manager with the Area Agency on Aging.  

Senior citizen hunger is prevalent across Georgia, and Pierce County is no exception. Just ask those who work with local seniors daily at the Pierce County Senior Center.

Eighty-eight percent of locals who receive a monthly food box from Pierce County Family Connections are seniors.

Stephanie Bell, executive director for Family Connections, regularly takes calls from senior citizens who need a little extra food. They’ll often ask for a bag of grits, she says.

Buy my medicine and live, or buy my food  — that’s the question many local seniors wrestle with daily, Bell adds.

Karen Herndon, Pierce County’s representative on the Area Aging Advisory Council, reports similar problems among the seniors she serves. Many of them don’t qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)  — commonly referred to as food stamps  — and if they do, the amount is minimal. Transportation to grocery stores and other food resources is also a challenge for seniors who can no longer drive.

Taylor, Bell and Herndon are concerned about senior hunger in Pierce County, but they’re optimistic about finding solutions too.

The women currently serve on a Senior Hunger Coalition created by the Southern Georgia Regional Commission. The group met for the first time last fall, and have already identified several senior citizen support initiatives.

“We’re trying to create a plan, not just on paper, but something that will effectively impact and reduce the number of seniors who are going to bed hungry at night,” Taylor says.

The Coalition will distribute a nutrition resource guide detailing contact information for local food banks, church programs and organizations that provide services for seniors.

The guide, to be completed in August, will be available online and in print at the senior center, social security administration office and local doctors’ offices. Law enforcement agencies and those manning the Aging and Disability Resource Connection (ADRC) phone lines will also have the guide.

“A lot of seniors don’t have that information … or they may not know the hours of operation,” Taylor says.

The group is also compiling a walking-biking map to fresh food resources.

“Not every senior who is hungry is hungry because of a lack of financial resources. Sometimes it’s a lack of transportation, sometimes it’s due to a lack of mobility,” Herndon explains.

And, often seniors only have access to a discount store, where fresh food options are limited, which further compounds their health challenges as processed foods can cause more physical issues.

“They want healthy food. They don’t want the processed stuff,” Bell says.

Informational resources are a great tool, but no amount of information can solve the problem of senior hunger entirely. If seniors can’t afford adequate food or can’t secure transportation to pick up groceries, they need food brought to them.

Pierce County farmers may be key to helping get fresh food into the hands of hungry senior citizens, significantly reducing or perhaps eliminating the problem locally.

The hunger coalition hopes to create and grow a gleaning program with local farmers to provide leftover produce to seniors. Herndon approached local officials with the idea at a recent meeting.

“We want to build relationships with our farmers and our senior centers,” Taylor says.

The senior center can coordinate seniors to glean in the fields, or send someone to pick up the produce if farmers can’t allow direct access to their crops.

So far, volunteers have helped distribute 300 pounds of blueberries, 300 pounds of squash, 125 pounds of cucumbers, 40 pounds of green tomatoes and 50 pounds of zuchinni donated from local farms to seniors.

Pierce County’s seniors have helped build our local economy, working long, hard hours in their prime.

“They’re the ones who built where we are today,” Bell says.

Now, they need community support.

Can we help? Yes, we can.

For more information regarding the gleaning program and food waste reclamation, contact Stephanie Bell at 912-230-7835; Pierce County Senior Center Nutrition Manager Lynn Platt at 912-449-0145; Area Aging Advisory Council representative Karen Herndon at 281-4449; or Shawn Taylor at 912-285-6097.