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Elders in Action project takes a bite out of senior hunger

Fresh produce from 'Bob's Garden' is part of the effort to tackle food insecurity among the elderly

Bob Reynolds has known hard times. The 79-year-old Tennessee native lost his parents when he was 4 and grew up in an orphanage. But hunger was not among his hardships, he recalls.

At the orphanage, 'we had a huge garden, 100 to 150 acres,' says Reynolds, who's lived in Portland since 1972. 'We had just about everything in the garden except cotton and tobacco … It was a real farm with hogs, chickens, goats.'

He's always enjoyed gardening, though he no longer can physically handle the chores of planting, weeding and watering.

Nonetheless, Reynolds is pitching in to help feed seniors who don't eat well. This spring he donated the use of his front yard for a community garden where volunteers grow vegetables to use in meals and add to food boxes at Loaves and Fishes and senior centers this summer.

'I'm a senior, so I like to help other seniors,' Reynolds says. 'I want seniors to have fresh produce.'

'Bob's Garden,' as his front-yard plot is called, is part of a Portland-area project called 'Hidden Hunger: Seniors and Food Insecurity.'

Organized by Elders in Action, the 'Hidden Hunger' project also involves the Hollywood Senior Center, Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services and other partners with an interest in addressing senior hunger. The purpose: to educate the public about food insecurity among older adults and provide a 'service learning' experience for volunteers.

'We're trying to raise awareness of what we feel is a very important social issue,' says Mark Noonan, volunteer engagement and social media manager for Elders in Action and leader of the Hidden Hunger Team of volunteers.

Noonan has gathered statistics documenting the problem of senior hunger. Among them:

• More than 5 million American seniors every year face the threat of hunger, a number that is growing, according to a report released this summer at a meeting of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. The report cited poor nutrition as a cause of chronic diseases requiring hospital or nursing-home care.

• Oregon ranks 29th in the nation in terms of senior food insecurity, with about 33,000 adults age 60 and older at risk of going hungry.

• Since the recession began in 2008, agencies across the country have seen a rise in demand for senior meal programs, according to a study from the Government Accountability Office.

It's not just impoverished seniors who fall into this group: Half of the at-risk elderly have incomes above the federal poverty line, Noonan reports.

The problem is referred to as 'hidden hunger' because 'it's not often spoken about or addressed for various reasons,' says Amber Kern-Johnson, executive director of the Hollywood Senior Center in Northeast Portland. For many seniors, it's a matter of pride, she adds.

The Hollywood Senior Center took part in an Elders in Action survey last year about seniors and food. In the survey, 'an overwhelming number of seniors responded that they didn't have enough food to eat or the kind of food they wanted to eat, including more fresh produce, because of financial constraints,' Kern-Johnson said.

Projects such as Bob's Garden are one way to make nutritious food accessible, she says.

The staff at the Hollywood Senior Center knew Reynolds because he used to go to the center regularly. While planning a community garden, 'we thought of a senior who's sociable and had space for a garden,' Kern-Johnson says. 'He seemed like the natural person to approach.'

In addition to Bob's Garden, Hidden Hunger Team projects in the past year have included:

• Harvesting a common field at the Multnomah County CROPS farm, an emergency food garden grown on underutilized county surplus property in Troutdale.

• Gleaning produce at local farmers markets, chiefly the Hollywood Farmers Market, and delivering it to Loaves and Fishes sites.

• Spreading information about SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) - formerly the food stamp program - and the Senior Farm Direct Nutrition Program available at farmers markets.

To date, the Hidden Hunger Team projects have involved more than 100 volunteers - most of them 50 and older - and provided an estimated 2,000 pounds of fresh produce to seniors through meals and food baskets, Noonan says.

Back at Bob's Garden, volunteer gardeners have grown and harvested kale, spinach, lettuce and herbs from the four raised beds in Reynolds' front yard. Reynolds is looking forward to tomatoes next.

'I want to help seniors,' he says. 'I want them to have it all.'

Join the fight against senior hunger

'Hidden Hunger: Seniors and Food Insecurity' is a project of Elders in Action's Encore Action Teams, which take on community service projects that address senior issues. For more information or to volunteer, call Elders in Action at 503-235-5474.