Nonprofit's Senior Outreach Program began during pandemic lockdowns, but 'this is an everyday problem,' organizers say
WARREN — For some seniors, it’s hard to go out and get groceries.
So Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan is bringing the groceries to them.
“We found it wasn’t just the pandemic that caused people to be in situations where they struggled to get groceries; they had physical or financial obstacles they also face,” Mark Johnson, manager for program initiatives at Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan (CCSEM), told Detroit Catholic.
Catholic Charities’ Senior Outreach Program has been partnering with Door Dash, Kroger and Bank of America to set up at-home delivery of groceries for seniors who face food insecurity and have difficulty getting to the store.
The program was born out of the pandemic, but over the course of helping seniors with home deliveries, Johnson said Catholic Charities discovered food insecurity remains a problem for seniors.
“Around July 2020, we officially moved this program from a small-time initiative to a full-time program, working with partners in the community to reach out to seniors we were already in contact with to make sure their food needs were met,” Johnson said.
The Senior Outreach Program now serves more than 2,000 people in the tri-county area, delivering orders that contain up to 21 meals for seniors. Those who are at 200 percent of the federal poverty line or below and have a physical handicap or transportation need are eligible for the program.
“Basically, the program spread by word of mouth," Johnson said. "We learned if we had one person in an apartment building in the program, the next week we’d have five, then the next week we’d have 10, because we were finding all these seniors who were in need of assistance.”
Even before the pandemic, many seniors on fixed incomes already faced food insecurity, said Stephanie Rubel, case manager for the Senior Outreach Program.
“The biggest barrier to food for our clients is income,” Rubel said. “Seniors choose to pay for rent and medications over food. Seniors also may have trouble leaving their homes and getting to the store, not having someone to rely on to do their shopping or having difficulty finding the groceries they need.”
With the Senior Outreach Program, clients may make a list of specific items and dietary needs for each delivery, which comes every two to four weeks, depending on a client’s needs. Each delivery is between 60-80 pounds of food, including fresh products such as eggs, milk, cheese and butter, along with requested meat and vegetables.
Beyond the one full-time and one part-time staffer for the Senior Outreach Program, Catholic Charities relies on a team of volunteers from various parishes who make up to 15 deliveries a day. Clients are all over southeast Michigan, from the Downriver area to Holly and Oxford, as well as in northern Macomb County.
Catholic Charities also reaches out to senior living facilities that don’t offer on-site dining services to set up "pop-up pantries" where seniors can sign up to pick out food they need, just like a grocery store.
“With this setup, we’re able to reach more people at one time,” Rubel said. “There are only a couple of us who do deliveries, so this gives us the opportunity to reach out to more people and make sure more people are being fed.”
In June, the Senior Outreach Program reached out to the Tivoli Senior Apartment Building in Warren to set up a pop-up pantry, where residents were called down by floor to pick out food they need for the week.
“With the high prices of everything, it’s really important for a lot of our seniors to have food that is accessible when their incomes are very limited,” said Betty Puffer, senior services coordinator at Tivoli Manor Co-Op Apartments. “The majority of seniors today live in subsidized housing. They don’t have cars. They don’t drive — some are on bus lines, but some aren’t. So having food brought into the building is extremely welcoming for them.”
The Senior Outreach Program operates out of St. Lucy Parish in St. Clair Shores — along with an auxiliary space at the Center for the Works of Mercy on Woodward Avenue in Detroit — but Johnson would like a more central location for volunteers to organize and prepare shipments.
Currently, the program is trying to recruit volunteers from St. Lawrence Parish in Utica and St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Madison Heights to organize drivers to make more deliveries as the food insecurity issue for seniors continues.
“We’d love to have parish groups deliver to seniors in their community,” Johnson said. “We have very good notes on where our residents live, so we know which parishes can help us with weekdays or evenings and weekend shipments. We have this culture of people doing food drives during Christmas and Thanksgiving, but food insecurity isn’t a holiday problem. It's an everyday problem, and we want to build a culture where parishes are proactively looking out for the needs in their communities.”