To afford food, seniors stretch dollars and rely on others

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Marie Gagnon
Marie Gagnon, 93, lives on her own in Ortonville, Minnesota, and has found resourceful ways to live on a tight, fixed income. To make the best use of the food box she receives each month, she uses the grape juice to make jelly and the tomato juice to make hotdish. Gagnon has a son living nearby who takes her to the grocery store.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Marie Gagnon has owned her home since 1966, and she still loves tending her garden.

At 93, she still manages to keep up with the house, but because she lives on $1,095 a month from Social Security, she sometimes has to closely watch her spending to afford nutritious food.

So when a friend suggested Gagnon might qualify for a box of free food from the federal government, she signed up.

The box from the Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors comes once a month, with canned fruit, cereal, and a big block of cheese. It helps stretch her budget, especially in the winter when she doesn't have a garden.

"There for a while, I couldn't afford to buy lettuce, and I love lettuce, and it's good for you — greens!" Gagnon said. "So now I can afford that."

Senior citizens like Gagnon are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of hunger, because many live on fixed incomes and already face health problems. Ensuring they have proper nutrition will be increasingly important in Minnesota, where about 700,000 people will reach retirement age in the next decade.

Research shows that seniors who struggle with food are significantly more likely to be in fair or poor health. One study shows being hungry is like adding 14 years to your age, when it comes to limiting the activities of daily living.

Richard and Delores Mauch
Richard, 88, and Delores Mauch, 84, still live on their farm in Chokio, Minnesota, and live a very thrifty lifestyle to get by on a limited, fixed income during their senior years. In addition to using what they learned during the Great Depression, they accept assistance from the Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors (NAPS), which gives them one box of non-perishable foods a month. Delores works to store and save food through canning and freezing meat and fruit, making her own bread and jam, and finding new ways of combining foods for a meal. Until last year, the couple had a large garden. Now friends and neighbors bring by extra produce from their gardens.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

In Big Stone County, where Gagnon lives near Minnesota's western border, a quarter of the population is at least 65 years old. Like many seniors there, she's figured out a way to get by — with a patchwork of help and a well-practiced ability to make money go a long way.

The box of food also helps Gagnon put aside a little money for other important needs.

"I'm working on my funeral, because that's important," Gagnon said. "I want to be buried, and it's terrible expensive, a funeral."

But not everybody is doing as well as she is.

"If you're very elderly, and you're living in a house you've maybe lived in for 50 years, but the property taxes have gone up dramatically, there's not enough money," County Commissioner Brent Olson said.

Big Stone is a sparsely populated county of about 5,269 people. The towns are small and spread out, with weathered farmhouses in between. Many young people have moved away to find jobs.

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In the tiny town of Beardsley, seniors gather every day to eat and catch up.

Mayor Mary Sykora is like a den mother for the town's seniors. She runs the senior dining site and home-delivered meals from her small cafe. A community action agency operates sites like this all over the county, to help provide seniors with regular, nutritious meals.

Sykora knows the challenges seniors face. She knows seniors who skip their medications so that they can afford groceries, and seniors who eat cheap processed foods. Some have trouble getting to the grocery store because they are unable to drive or stores are far away. But seniors don't like to talk about such problems.

"It's a different generation," Sykora said. "They're proud. They're not going to take handouts as quick as anybody else would."

In a town where everyone knows everyone, she said, some who need help don't want their neighbors to think less of them.

It's not just pride that keeps seniors from asking for help. As members of a generation that knows real hardship, their stoicism has deep roots.

About 700,000 people in Minnesota will reach retirement age in the next decade.

"They made it through the '30s and '40s back when it was tough," Skyora said. "They're used to making a go of it when it gets really bad."

Despite a reluctance to talk about food struggles, some seniors rely on friends and neighbors as a buffer against hunger.

That means helping each other — without injuring anyone's pride.

On a farm outside Graceville, Delores Mauch, 84, and her husband Richard, 88, eat nutritiously on an income just above the poverty line, thanks to their thriftiness and some neighborly help.

The couple lives on the farm they've had since 1950. They're good at living frugally. Delores Mauch makes apple butter, and patches old socks. She and her husband, a World War II veteran, rely largely on Social Security and a small veteran's pension.

"Money doesn't stretch very much, but we do the best we can to make it stretch," she said.

For years, they had a big garden and shared the bounty. Now that they're too old to grow their own food, neighbors share with them — beets, beans, and leafy vegetables.

Mary Sykora
Mary Sykora, owner of Bobby Jo's Place in Beardsley, Minnesota, prepares and serves a meal of pork, mashed potatoes, and carrots to seniors on Tuesday, July 26, 2011. The congregate dining program, run by Prairie Five Community Action Council, provides seniors a nutritious meal and allows them to gather and socialize. The program aims to help seniors live independently by fighting both poor nutrition and social isolation.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Neighbors also offer help with the farm. When a man who farms the Mauchs' land pulls up to the house to check on the couple, after an evening storm damaged the machine shed, she pulls him aside, out of earshot of her husband.

"Come back when you can," she said. "Because we'll need help, and he won't ask."

The Mauchs also receive other help. When someone called and suggested they might qualify for the free box of commodities from the U.S. government, Mauch took it. She understands that others might be too proud. But she sees an opportunity.

"If someone helps us, then maybe we can help someone else in another way," she said. "Like a domino, if somebody helps you, you can help someone else."

That's part of the safety net in a rural county like Big Stone. Olson, the county commissioner, said it helps seniors remain independent.

"Once you move into some congregate housing, people burn through their savings usually in a matter of months," he said. "Then they become the responsibility of the government to pay for, and that's very expensive."

But keeping people in their homes, and making sure they receive healthy meals, may become more difficult.

"It's a fragile safety net. As people get older, now you have 80-year olds taking care of 90-year-olds," Olson said. "And as government programs are getting frayed, you need to be concerned that there are going to be people falling through."

That could leave seniors in Big Stone County to choose between food and medication. Others might have to settle for inexpensive food that doesn't provide the nutrition they need.

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