A few years ago, Billy Wise didn’t think he’d want to go to the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center after he was invited by friends from church.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know, man … but I’m a little older, I’m 75,” Wise said. “You fall in love with these people because everyone here has the same problem as you. There are people with cancer, arthritis, rheumatism and everything. I have cancer and it’s a good place to be. ”
He and his wife Ruth Wise, 71, residents of Barling, emphasized the importance of community.
“People believe in God and before eating, they always pray,” Ruth said, adding that prayer includes specific requests from those present. “… If they close it, we would be lost.”
For seniors throughout Sebastian County, Senior Activity Centers are a space for socialization, travel and community, along with connections to resources and support.
Seven centers are located in Sebastian County, three in Fort Smith, one in Lavaca, one in Greenwood, one in Mansfield, and one in Hartford.
The centers also serve as a livelihood for daily meals for many people living on a fixed income.
“Seniors can go to any senior center and eat,” said Denna Rice, executive director of the Sebastian Retired Citizens Association, which oversees the seven senior centers. “If you live in Greenwood and you want to go to Mansfield to eat, you can.”
The seven centers served 908 people through the home delivery program and 546 people through the group meal program in November 2021. In total, 21,945 meals were cooked, served and delivered that month.
“I am serving the most vulnerable population there is: the elderly. Then when you add the homebound to that, these are the people who can’t go out and use these food banks and these food pantries … They stay out in the cold. They are left out. ”
The client intake form for the centers asks about income, and based on the answer, the person will be referred to SNAP benefits or local resources, including food pantries and local churches.
Rice said that about 90% of the people served by the center have a fixed income and about 60% live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.
However, group and home-delivered meal programs are based on age, not income, and require the person to be 60 years of age or older. For the home delivery program, the person must also be homebound, “which means they can’t leave the home without the help of another person,” Rice said.
Better health, one meal at a time
The programs are funded by multiple federal grants, including from the United States Department of Agriculture, which establishes dietary guidelines for meals.
“Our program only provides one third of an individual’s dietary needs, which means we only provide one lunch,” he said. “We now provide meals seven days a week. For those who need them on the weekend, we will give them frozen meals ”.
Each meal should have a caloric intake of 600 to 800 calories, including two to three ounces of protein, half a cup of vegetables, half a cup of fruit, milk, a dessert, and starch.
“The focus is definitely on lean protein and green leafy vegetables,” Rice said. “You need to understand that this could be the only meal these seniors eat in a day, and that it should be a healthy meal, well balanced meal and well portioned.
“With men, [a favorite meal is] meat and potatoes … meatloaf, mashed potatoes. With women and men, I think our most popular food, and I can say in all of Sebastian County, is a taco salad. ”
The program is by donation only with $ 3 per meal; however, “they feed whether they donate or not,” Rice said. Donations are made anonymously through a mailbox.
Overcoming challenges with local associations
The Sebastian Retired Citizens Association works with its food service provider Springfield Grocers, along with the River Valley Regional Food Bank and United Way of Fort Smith Area to support older adults.
With the impact of inflation during the coronavirus pandemic, senior centers have overcome shortages and rising food costs to adapt their meal plans.
“A couple of weeks ago, we couldn’t even get fluid milk,” Rice said. “… We can’t offer a lot of meat right now. We have to stick with chicken and fish … [Fruit] it is something that is very important for our older adults to have. And the cost of the fruit is incredible. And what it is, is not so much the food itself, but the packaging materials. It’s the metal, the cans and things like that. That’s where the shortage is. ”
Another shortage the centers have faced is Styrofoam, which they use to package meals for pickup and delivery.
“Then there are unscrupulous people who want to take advantage, and then they evaluate the prices,” Rice said. “It really hurts our nonprofits.”
The importance of connection
Rice described how homebound older adults are unable to access typical food resources such as pantries and food distributions, making programs like Meals on Wheels and other home deliveries crucial to their well-being.
For many people who receive food through Meals on Wheels, the program is the only personal contact they have each day, Rice said.
“They are the most vulnerable,” Rice said. “They are the most vulnerable due to food insecurity, lack of nutrition, lack of socialization. They are lacking in all respects. And when you are food insecure, it affects your general well-being, your mental health, your quality of life. ”
People are often connected to the home delivery program through hospitals, doctor’s offices, and word of mouth.
“Many of them are too proud to ask for help,” Rice said. “They think someone else could use the food more than they do. I have been to many homes where there is nothing in their refrigerators. Any. As communities and things like that, we have to find a way to reach out to our homebound. ”
The centers send food from the food bank to people who are homebound, but Rice shared the limitations people still face.
“That gallon of milk and that bag of potatoes, they were gone in a couple of days,” Rice said. “So older people sometimes don’t even have the ability to peel the potatoes due to medical problems. We have to open some of the milk cartons for some of our seniors because they can’t even open them. ”
“Until you have done this and seen it every day, there is more. It’s not just about food insecurities. They are food insecurities with the quality of life and isolation ”.
How to enroll in meal programs
Those interested in enrolling in the meal programs offered by the Sebastián Retired Citizens Association can call the main office at 479-648-9970.
The main office will connect the person to the appropriate center in Fort Smith, Lavaca, Greenwood, Mansfield, or Hartford.