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We’ve heard a lot about the vulnerable senior population during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even prior to that, a study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that, in California, one in five adults over the age of 65 lives in “an economic no-man’s land, unable to afford basic needs but often ineligible for government assistance.”
Santa Barbara’s Community Action Commission is attacking this challenge head-on.
“CAC’s Senior Nutrition program provides a daily nutritious meal to this vulnerable population in Santa Barbara County, where the need is compounded by the area’s high cost of living, primarily due to a lack of affordable housing,” said CEO Patricia Keelean. She explained that these “invisible poor” receive inadequate social security to cover their basic needs and yet do not qualify for government safety-net programs, such as SSI and SNAP.
“The low-income seniors that we serve are being squeezed financially, forced to choose between housing, medicine, and food,” she explained. “Because they can’t afford all three, a healthy meal usually becomes their lowest priority. This was the status for the past few years — and then along comes COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place directive! So there is a lot of work to do now.”
The countywide program is free, with no qualifications or proof of age, income, or citizenship required. Participants simply sign up for either the home-delivery option or to eat with others at community centers, though those are currently to-go meals because of COVID-19.
“Many of the regular guests to community sites changed to home delivery once the lockdown occurred,” said Keelean. “But there was still a need to feed people without homes or with an inconsistent address or other delivery issues, so this distribution still goes on and demand here has also grown.” Requests have grown during the pandemic more than 50 percent, so the CAC now provides meals to more than 700 seniors on a daily basis.
When the CAC put out a call for volunteers to help with increased demand in April, about two dozen contacted the commission, and most were over the age of 55, said development director Linda Rosso. Their first project was organizing personal-care packages that were delivered to homebound seniors with one of their daily meals.
“With a robust program of trained volunteers, Senior Nutrition can meet the needs of our growing list of enrollees without incurring the additional expense of paid delivery drivers and on-site meal hosts,” said Rosso, who could always use more help. “Using volunteers as drivers and site hosts, we can put the dollars saved on paid staff back into food procurement.” That means the CAC can feed even more seniors.
“By expanding the number of drivers and site hosts through volunteerism,” added Rosso, “we can also give more time to individual seniors, supporting socialization and safety checks.”
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