Even as the Sacramento economy inches toward recovery, the number of older adults using local food banks continues to soar, rising by 25 percent during 2012 at River City Food Bank alone, said the food bank's executive director, Eileen Thomas.
"Some of it is there are more of us in that age group," she said. "People are living longer. People are working longer, those who can. But so many people with health issues can't work, and we see many in that category.
"Where do you cut when you're on a limited budget? You cut food."
Along with its growing number of senior clients, the food bank serves 5,000 people each month who are "food insecure" – unable to afford an adequate number of nutritious meals each day.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 17 percent of Sacramento County residents are food insecure and need to rely on charitable food closets. About 8,000 local seniors each month make use of donations from Foodlink, which is the county's official food bank.
Those local older adults are part of an unfortunate national trend. Since 2001, the risk of going hungry has increased for people 50 and older by nearly 80 percent, according to AARP and the Center for Poverty Research, with almost 9 million people in that age category considered food insecure.
But despite the rise in the number of seniors already seeking help from food closets in the Sacramento region, experts consider the local senior population to be in even greater need of nutrition assistance.
"So many are eligible for CalFresh food stamps," said Thomas, "but they look at that as a welfare program as opposed to a nutrition supplement."
Too often, she said, older adults end up choosing whether they can afford food or medication. They juggle whether to pay utility bills on time or buy groceries. And those raising grandchildren find their limited budgets stretched even further.
"If you're on a limited income, price increases of even a small amount will make you feel stretched," said Thomas. "Look at how gas prices have gone up, for seniors who are still driving. And I see this as something that will continue with seniors. We will always serve families with children, but it's with seniors that we see a growing need."
One of Thomas' favorite food bank clients is a 92-year-old east Sacramento woman who has outlived the 11 younger siblings she helped raise. She's alone in the world, except for the neighbors who bring her to the food bank.
"We make a fuss over her," Thomas said. "She doesn't like to take much food. She only takes a little bit. She's worked hard all of her life, and this is where she is at 92."
RIVER CITY FOOD BANK FUNDRAISER
The River City Food Bank's 10th annual Empty Bowls fundraiser – have a simple meal of soup and take home a handcrafted glass or pottery bowl – takes place at the Sacramento Convention Center, 1400 J St., Monday and Tuesday. Hours are 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, two lunchtime seatings, at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $60 for the supper or $30 for the lunch. For more details, go to rivercityfoodbank.org/empty-bowls/.