In March when New Jersey began implementing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, 92-year-old Evelyn Kassus sheltered in place. Up until then, the Princeton resident was active. She belonged to a knitting group, volunteered in the community and did her own food shopping to supplement the weekly meals she received from the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). But these days, apart from taking walks and picking up to-go meals at the Redding Circle Senior Center in Princeton Kassus said, “I keep to myself.”
She’s not alone. Even as more people become antsy, staying at home, senior citizens justifiably wary of COVID-19’s possible consequences, are keeping their distance. However, when a senior is among New Jersey’s 210,000 older adults living with hunger and food insecurity, staying at home can exacerbate an already tenuous circumstance. A recent study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and AARP, showed that 9.8 percent of New Jersey households with seniors are food insecure. According to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, another 7.5 percent have incomes below the poverty level, meaning many must choose between paying for groceries or the light bill.
“They have to eat,” said Ruth Carter, Trenton’s director of Social Work Services and Community Relations. The division partnered with TASK this spring to deliver over 700 meals daily to seniors living in one of the city’s 14 low-income housing developments. “However, they don’t have the money for delivery and even if they asked a neighbor or family to take them out, that ride is still going to cost them gas. That and the added cost of PPE (personal protection equipment) like masks and gloves, is just too much for them.”
Currently 25 percent of TASK patrons are between ages of 50 and upwards of 70, with the bulk between the ages 50 and 60. In New Jersey, the term senior citizen applies to people 55 and older, however, federal programs set the benchmark at age 65 which is also the age senior citizens are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Open to a range of ages, SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is designed to fight hunger and provide access to healthy food. Seniors, however, are least likely to use the program for many reasons. Some don’t think they are eligible while others worry the benefit jeopardizes their eligibility for other programs, recent studies show. While 48 percent of eligible seniors in New Jersey use the benefits, expert say if the numbers were higher, fewer would live with food insecurity, hunger and tough choices. Research on senior debt by the National Council on Aging discovered many older adults with debt make trade-offs that are potentially dangerous to their health, such as skipping meals and cutting pills in half.
Asha Gurunathan who runs the Princeton Kindness Food Project, estimates that her program serves seniors between the ages of 62 and 92. Modeled after the “kindness fridges” of India and Dubai, Gurunathan and co-founder Joanne Costanza, started the program just 10 months ago when they partnered with TASK to provide food for the township’s low-income residents and seniors citizens. The food project supplements the TASK meal with bottled teas, fresh fruit and “other delights” like cookies or crackers said Gurunathan. The project has served over 4,000 meals since its inception. Princeton Kindness is one of 16 partnerships TASK has with local community groups which help the soup kitchen deliver meals five-days a week to various sites across Mercer County and Bordentown in Burlington County. Before the pandemic, Princeton Kindness distributed meals solely to residents at the Redding Circle and Spruce Circle senior centers – essentially clubhouses for each housing development. Additionally, agencies, including the YMCA-Princeton would pick up meals from the centers and deliver them to the homebound.
Today, Gurunathan and her team of volunteers, distribute to-go meals to anyone who comes to the clubhouse – “no questions asked,” she said. Meals are available at Redding, Tuesday, 4-6pm. Kassus who lives at Redding said she no longer likes cooking and has been getting her meals from the project since it started. For the great-grandmother of five it’s convenient, cost effective and healthy eating, she said. However, as more seniors continue to stay at home to avoid contracting the virus, Gurunathan and others are fielding requests for home deliveries.
“We started deliveries about a month ago,” said Larry Apperson, the CEO of the Princeton Cornerstone Community Kitchen (PCCK) at Princeton United Methodist Church. “We have an additional 20 people to serve who are mostly seniors who are afraid to go out. “
PCCK, another TASK partner, served the soup kitchen’s meals to more than 100 people before the pandemic. The community kitchen also provided a food store stocked with provisions from local donors and farms where people in need received one bag of food along with their hot meal from TASK.
“People would get their bag and then go back to their seat and eat their TASK meal,” Apperson wistfully recalled, clearly missing what he termed “the good old days” before the pandemic. “People used to linger and talk. We called it our upscale soup kitchen – much like a restaurant with live music on the piano.”
After shutting down for two months PCCK reopened. Without knowing that TASK switched to a to-go meal model, Apperson decided the community kitchen would do the same. Additionally, PCCK reached out to the sizable LatinX community in Princeton – the source of the delivery request. With the deliveries, the group serves about half of what it used to before the pandemic. Anticipating growth as people and whole organizations like PCCK, TASK and the Princeton Kindness Food Project adjust, Apperson is looking for ways to keep things going. PCCK distributes meals each Wednesday at 5pm from the church’s side door.
Gurunathan and her co-founder Costanza are also optimistic and looking for ways to keep doing what they do. Gurunathan would like to take the program to neighboring towns like Lawrence. Costanza said she can see their program working in other housing developments. Carter, from Trenton’s social work office, said she too would like to see the city’s partnership with TASK continue – especially as the current climate prevails.
“As long as seniors can’t get out,” Carter said, “These meals and these services are very much needed.”