BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Hunger and food insecurity may sound like the same thing, but they are different. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, hunger is something a person feels when they don't have food to eat. Food insecurity happens when a household or community, often due to economic reasons, struggles to maintain access to adequate, nourishing food.
Food insecurity is particularly true for the senior population nationwide, across the state, and here in Kern County. According to Feeding America, 1 in 15 seniors, defined as individuals over the age of 60, experiences hunger, while 6.8 percent of all seniors experience food insecurity.
5.2 million senior citizens faced hunger in 2020, and since the pandemic, experts say things have gotten worse, even in Kern County, where we produce and feed the world with crops but cannot feed all of our own.
"Around the end of the month, our finance get short because we're on a fixed income, and this helps a lot to not have to spend so much money at the store. Just helps to supplement our food and help us to make it through the month," said Frankie Knight.
Frankie and Ramona Knight are two Kern County seniors who rely on other resources to get the food they need for the month.
"Sometimes you have to take your pride and swallow it, and we get good vegetables and fruit and good canned foods and good food to eat that sometimes, maybe, we couldn't afford it because of Social Security," said Ramona Knight.
As of 2020 in Kern County, 10.2 percent of the population are seniors over the age of 65. Of those, 20.7 percent are food insecure, according to data from Kern County Aging and Adult Services.
Michelle Corson with Kern County Public Health makes plain the severity of the problem.
"Bakersfield actually ranks number one in the nation with the most people in a metropolitan area who cannot afford to buy the food that they need, and that affects all of us as well as our senior population," said Corson.
Corson adds that another reason our older population is vulnerable is because of their health.
"As you age, you do become more susceptible to chronic health problems such as diabetes and blood pressure and high cholesterol and osteoporosis," said Corson. "Also, your immune system is going to weaken with age, so the importance of having a nutritious diet that is consistent is really important for all of us, especially for our senior population."
Senior Advocate with Nourish California Jared Call says that since COVID first hit, the problem has only increased.
"Hunger and food insecurity was a problem in California and throughout the nation prior to, but we really saw it spike during the pandemic. You probably remember seeing long lines at food banks, long lines of cars at food distributions, and also we saw our CalFresh caseload rise significantly," Call said, going on to explain, "CalFresh is our version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP."
In 2019, 156,052 people of all ages used CalFresh in Kern County, while only 12,328, or 7.9 percent of people over the age of 60 use CalFresh in Kern.
Call adds that across the state, these numbers look even worse.
"When it comes to older adults, we are dead last in the country. The latest statistics, which are a little dated - we are waiting for some updated data - but indicate that only 26 percent of those age 60 and over are receiving CalFresh, so obviously, that's an even bigger opportunity for us to reach those households," said Call.
And while the emergency covid allotment for CalFresh is ending this month, which will drop a single-person household from $281 per month to $23 a month, there are other resources available.
Connie Totten is the food ministry pastor at New Life Church in Bakersfield, and twice a month they hold a food drive for people in the community.
"I tell them 'Come and get this food. Come and get it if you need it. Don't worry about your kids, because we're here for you,'" said Totten. "And that's the same thing I say to the seniors, to everybody. We're here for you."
Totten says there are seniors who rely on what New Life does.
"They have told us that they couldn't make it through the month if they didn't come here," said Totten.
This remains true for the Knights. They say they've been coming to New Life's food drive for around 18 years, and they couldn't survive without it.
"We've been coming here to supplement our Social Security income," said Frankie Knight. "It's a big help getting this food each month, and it helps. That way, we have enough money to pay our bills."
Jared Call says that while seniors will see the abrupt cut in CalFresh when the emergency allotments end, Nourish California is still advocating for more assistance, as the program can have a positive impact on healthcare.
"Can actually save healthcare cost around $1,500 to $2,000 per year for seniors. That's more than the cost of the benefits. So again, we're leading with values. It's a values-based proposition, but it's also just smart public policy, and a smart investment of state dollars," said Call.
Kern County is also helping with the fight. In 2018, the county started the Waste Hunger, Not Food program, and since then they have saved 2,457,975 pounds of food from going in the trash, according to Michelle Corson.
"Forty percent of all food in the US is wasted. It's just thrown away or is wasted, so we wanted to bring those two together," said Corson. "Rescue this very wholesome health food, and make sure it's getting to our residents that need it the most."
Regardless of the program, Pastor Totten says for her, it's all about helping the population that needs it most.
"It's wonderful to see them, to accept this, that they're not ashamed of it because it's for them," said Totten. "This is the community doing for them."
23ABC is also joining in the fight against hunger and senior food insecurity. We are once again partnering with the Community Action Partnership of Kern Food Bank to help our senior population.
We will be collecting canned and non-perishable food items at several drop-off sites around Kern County. You can find a list of drop-off sites, as well as suggestions about what kinds of donations are needed the most, at our website here.
To make a financial donation, please visit the CAP-K donate page.
And if you'd like to be a part of the main event, you can drop your donation off right here at our station at 21st and V in downtown Bakersfield as we broadcast live from our Senior Food Drive throughout the day on March 23 from 6:00 am until 7:30 pm.