River City Food Bank launches senior breakfast program in Sacramento

Olga Browne believes in breakfast. When she eats a bowl of oatmeal or some scrambled eggs and juice, she said, she gets an energy boost that carries her throughout the day.

But as a senior citizen with a small income who lives in a downtown apartment building, Browne usually skips the morning meal. For her and many of her friends at Park Place retirement community, breakfast food is inaccessible and costly.

“Most of the people here have no kitchen, so most of us don’t eat breakfast,” said Browne, 67. “The stuff we do get is something easy from the dollar store, something processed or something you can put in the microwave. It definitely isn’t healthy.”

That routine is about to change for Browne and other Park Place residents, who are part of a pilot program called Most Important Meal that is overseen by the River City Food Bank. For the next six months, the agency will deliver fresh, healthy breakfast food to residents, and medical teams from Sutter Health will gauge whether the health of participants improves during the course of the project.

“We want to see if we can make a real, positive difference in the lives of people,” said River City Executive Director Eileen Thomas. “We would like to show a measurable outcome.”

Dietitians have long extolled the virtues of a healthy breakfast, especially for older people who are at risk of extreme weakness or falls if they fail to consume enough calories.

River City’s statistics suggest that seniors are increasingly at risk of hunger, Thomas said. The number of older adults using the food bank has soared by 25 percent in recent years, she said. 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.

While the economy is improving, “the recession did hurt that segment of the population particularly hard,” Thomas said, and many have never recovered. Some choose medications over food when they are strapped for money.

Seniors with limited incomes are eligible to receive food through the government nutrition program known as CalFresh, but only a fraction of them take advantage of the program, according to the agency.

About two years ago, River City’s board of directors began talking to seniors at food banks, community centers, apartment complexes and other locations about their eating habits. “They told us things like, ‘I don’t have enough money for breakfast,’ and, ‘I sometimes eat cookies for breakfast,’ ” Thomas said. Those interviews led to the pilot project at Park Place.

Sutter Health agreed to provide medical screenings of participants before the program began and at its conclusion. River City obtained grants from several organizations, including the Sierra Health Foundation, for the project.

Park Place seniors receive an evening meal as part of their rental agreements. Those who are disabled or impoverished have limited access to food outside of the building, Browne said. “A lot of people are handicapped, and can’t walk to a grocery store or go to the food bank.”

Beginning Monday, Park Place residents will get a delivery of a week’s worth of free breakfast groceries, including cereal, juice, whole wheat bread, peanut butter and fresh fruit. Items will vary week to week, Thomas said.

River City hopes to develop a model program that could continue beyond the pilot phase and be adopted by other organizations, she said.

Volunteers who deliver the meals at Park Place will not simply drop off food, Thomas said. They will talk with residents in an effort to find out which foods they like and don’t like, what works best for them and whether breakfast seems to be making a difference in the way they feel, she said.

Browne is confident that it will.

In her younger years, she said, she made the morning meal a priority. Now she will be able to do so again.

“When I don’t eat breakfast, I’m definitely not as energetic,” she said. “So many of us can’t really afford breakfast, so this program is wonderful. It’s such a blessing, and I’m so grateful they’re doing it.”