You don’t need to be an expert in tasseography — or, as it’s more commonly known, reading the tea leaves — to see what’s coming.
You just have to read the news.
For Pierce County food banks, and Helen McGovern-Pilant — executive director of the Emergency Food Network — what’s around the corner seems clear: a sharp increase in the number of seniors in our community.
“You can’t turn on the news without seeing that 10,000 people are turning 65 every day,” McGovern-Pilant says.
She’s right. I Googled it. It’s a trend that’s expected to continue for the next 14 years.
According to Pew Research Center population projections, by 2030, when all baby boomers have reached the age of 65, a full 18 percent of Americans will be at least that old (or, shall we say, that distinguished).
And Pew is far from alone in these findings. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in Washington, D.C., “Projections of the entire older population (which includes the pre-baby-boom cohorts born before 1946) suggest that 71.4 million people will be age 65 or older in 2029.”
Closer to home, a demographic and trends analysis included in the most recent Metro Parks Mission Led Comprehensive Plan found that Tacoma’s population will experience “a rapid aging trend” over the next 15 years.
You can’t turn on the news without seeing that 10,000 people are turning 65 every day.
Helen McGovern-Pilant, executive director of the Emergency Food Network
Which brings us back to McGovern-Pilant, and what this aging trend means for the some 70 food banks, shelters and meal sites the nonprofit agency supplies with the bulk of their food. In 2015, EFN provided roughly 16 million pounds of food to local food banks and meal sites, representing a 71 percent increase since 2008, and a 23 percent increase since 2011.
In all likelihood, a sharp increase in the number of seniors in our community means a sharp increase in the number of seniors looking to our area’s food banks for help.
In fact, McGovern-Pilant says it’s already happening. Beginning with the Great Recession in 2008, she says, EFN saw a spike in the amount of food required to meet area food bank needs across the board, in all age demographics.
Since that time, however, McGovern-Pilant says the spike has shown signs of decreasing for all food bank visitors except one noted group.
“A high percentage of those folks do not find themselves in a good financial situation,” McGovern-Pilant observes.
The question becomes: How do food banks prepare for the coming senior crunch — including meeting the nutritional needs and diet requirements that come with it?
The cold reality, McGovern-Pilant acknowledges, is that food banks likely won’t be able to shoulder the burden alone. Most are small-time, volunteer efforts. That model, she says, will likely need to be re-examined.
McGovern-Pilant also highlights a need to get more enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
That’s where people such as Jeff Klein, executive director of Sound Outreach, come in.
As its name implies, Klein’s agency engages in outreach targeted at a number of populations, including, among other things, helping get local residents enrolled in SNAP, Medicaid, utility assistance programs, tax preparation and homeless rehousing services. “We’re out in the community at multiple sites, signing people up for multiple benefits,” he says.
One of the most needed, and trickiest, is SNAP — and Sound Outreach has a contract with DSHS to lead the sign-up efforts for it.
The senior population has, I think, a stigma of food stamps that’s stronger than it is with other demographic groups – probably because they grew up with a different notion of food stamps. They view it as welfare.
Jeff Klein, executive director of Sound Outreach
The program has a number of requirements and regulations, including for income and disability. But even so, Klein estimates that there are “thousands of seniors who qualify and don’t have the benefit.”
In Pierce County, he puts the number as high as 20,000.
Some, he says, simply don’t know they qualify. Others, however, are deterred by negative misconceptions about “food stamps.”
And there are other obstacles — such as mobility issues, the paperwork, or the notion that a small benefit for a single person — $16 a month, in some cases — won’t make a big difference in their life. (At many farmers markets, it’s worth noting, patrons using SNAP benefits can double their purchases.)
“The senior population has, I think, a stigma of food stamps that’s stronger than it is with other demographic groups — probably because they grew up with a different notion of food stamps. They view it as welfare,” Klein says.
“We’re having to overcome that preconceived notion,” he continues. “The way we frame it is that it’s not welfare, it is a benefit. It is something that folks are entitled to. … If they don’t have other sources of income, or they don’t have many sources of income, and they can supplement their food budget with (SNAP), they might as well take advantage of it
“You wouldn’t pass up $16 on the street.”
Most would not. And most would also agree that looking out for the growing number of seniors in our community is a basic element of societal decency.
“The writing is on the wall,” as McGovern-Pilant says. “And it’s up to us to read it, analyze it, and react to it.”