Nfld. & Labrador

Many N.L. seniors can't afford to eat, let alone choose healthy food, say advocates

Demand for emergency food services is up at one St. John's seniors' organization, as people grapple to feed themselves and the need to do so healthily remains out of reach.

Non-profit group seeing food bank use grow

Gerald Murphy says his doctor told him to lose weight and eat a healthy diet after two strokes, but he can't buy the right food because he doesn't have the budget. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Amanda Devlin totes a food hamper from the Bridges to Hope food bank to her car, destined for a senior citizen in need — a regular occurrence for her of late. 

"It can be one hamper a day, and it can be up to eight, or nine, or even 10 hampers a day," said Devlin, the co-founder of the non-profit group Connections for Seniors.

Connections for Seniors offers a range of programming for people who are 55 years of age and older, but over the course of the pandemic, there's been a spike in one area: requests for their emergency food aid services. While the ripple effects of COVID-19 have been felt at food banks across Newfoundland and Labrador, seniors may have had it tougher than most.

Many Connections for Seniors clients follow strict diets because of health issues — diets that focus on fresh and healthy food, which makes eating more expensive. At the same time, those seniors cannot often afford to buy the ingredients in line with those diets due to their high levels of food insecurity.

Someone who knows that reality all too well is St. John's resident Gerald Murphy. 

Murphy worked in restaurants for decades, but a couple of years ago found himself between jobs. For Murphy, what was available to a man in his late 50s at the time was not enough to make ends meet.

"I mean, finding jobs was easy, I'd get hired right away, but they'd offer me minimum wage 15, 20 hours a week. I can't live on that. I can't pay my rent with that," he said. Murphy went on social assistance, and when he turned 60, his Canada Pension Plan started coming in as well. 

Amanda Devlin, a co-founder of the non-profit group Connections for Seniors, has lately found herself giving out food hampers to clients every day. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Then a few months ago, Murphy had what he describes as two massive strokes. His doctor ordered him to lose weight through light exercise and eat healthier. He's been following the advice as best he can; in the time since, he's been walking daily and doing light shoveling in the winter. 

While he's winning one battle, he literally cannot afford to fight the other. 

"Eating healthy is expensive. No processed food. Things that are special I can't get it, because I can't eat it," he said.

"Even if the food bank, God love them, when they send me food I can probably eat half of it."

Murphy said hampers tend to come with some processed food, or food with too much sodium for his diet. 

"It's not their fault. That's what you get," he said.

Mary Moylan is a seniors' advocate and co-founder of the national group Support Our Seniors. (Gary Locke/CBC)

'It's a battle'

Seniors living below the poverty line are being ignored, said seniors' advocate Mary Moylan.

In an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show, Moylan said seniors live in constant fear, aggravation and worry because they do not have enough money to live. 

She said the government needs to provide some sort of supplement to help lift seniors out of poverty. 

"It's a battle. It's an ongoing daily battle just for the food alone," Moylan, who founded the national advocacy group Support Our Seniors, said.

"There are other issues as well, of course, that are very expensive. But food is the main one. With good food, you can have a sense of well-being."

At Connections for Seniors in St. John's, co-founder Mohamed Abdallah said he's seeing need increasing day by day, with some seniors needing an emergency top-up of food at the end of every month. 

"We're not talking about the quality of food at this point; we're talking about the basic need of food," he said. 

Abdallah said it shouldn't be this way, and that when people retire after a lifetime of work, they should be able to access the proper food and shelter to provide a good quality of life.

"When I'm 65, I should not worry about what I'm going to eat tomorrow," he said. 

Mohamed Abdallah, a co-founder of Connections for Seniors, says he sees the need among seniors increasing daily. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Like Moylan, Abdallah points to the fact that paying for healthy food costs too much for seniors on fixed incomes, creating a snowball effect.

"That causes more harm, affects health and costs more money at the end of the road as a community and society, he said. 

The focus should be looking at how to help our most vulnerable populations eat healthily and thrive as they age, instead of  the reliance on aid that's happening right now, he said.

Fed Up is a series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, exploring the issues surrounding food insecurity and why many people in the province are struggling to access food.

Fed Up is a collaboration between CBC N.L. and Food First NL, the province’s not-for-profit organization that works to improve access to healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show