More older Arizona adults are food insecure — and they're turning to food banks for help
St. Mary’s Food Bank has been around for more than half a century. And last month, the food bank served a record 150,000 families. Increasingly, that count includes people 50 and older, many of whom are on fixed incomes.
It’s 9:00 a.m. and dozens of cars are lined up at the St. Mary’s Food Bank on Thomas Road and 31st Avenue in Phoenix.
Ronald Pritchard, 52, is slowly inching his way up to the front of the line where volunteers will deposit a week’s worth of food in his front seat. Right now, he’s stopped under one of two large tents, which offers a bit of a reprieve from the baking sun. It’s already 95 degrees. Pritchard has been coming to this food bank for the last six months.
"I've been here before," he said. "Like in between jobs and stuff."
He’s working now, but, he says he's not making as much these days.
"So, it’s tight," he said. "I just come here, like, twice a month. And it helps out sometimes."
Just a couple of cars behind Pritchard is Sista. She didn’t want to give her last name, but she was happy to talk. Sista is 78 and was recently let go from her job.
"My Social Security goes to my rent," she said. "I pay a lot of rent … And right now, I have insurance, car insurance, I have my cellphone and another insurance that I have to pay."
So, she has to choose between her bills and food.
Sista’s daughter, Monica, who declined to share her last name, drove her mom to the food bank so she doesn’t use up her gas, which is just shy of $4 a gallon these days.
"I don’t know how these people can work and afford food [with] the cost of living going up here, now," she said.
Monica says that "whatever odds and ends" Sista doesn't get at the food bank, "me and my sisters are able to provide her with, or whatever little bit she has [from] her Social Security check, [it] will cover things like milk and bread, if she didn't get that here."
According to the organization Feeding America, in 2020, more than 5 million adults 60 or older faced hunger. And while things were very difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, what’s happening now is different.
"When it comes to gasoline, when it comes to food, when it comes to high rents, especially among our senior population, when you're on fixed incomes, and inflation goes up 10%, that's a bad combination." said Jerry Brown, St. Mary’s director of public relations. "You have to make cuts."
Which led to what’s happening here, on this day.
It's getting worse
Brown says their busiest days used to be Mondays and Fridays, right as they opened and right before they closed.
"Now it's a constant flow Monday through Friday, 8 o'clock to 1 o'clock," said Brown.
And sometimes the lines are so backed up, "we're sending people around the block until there's an open spot where you can even get into the parking lot to start the process of waiting."
Brown says it can take 30 minutes or so to actually get a box of food, which includes a big bag of iceberg lettuce, English muffins, eggs, fresh fruit and even a case of Rockstar energy drink. Though it varies depending on what’s available on a given day.
"I've been doing this for 13 years," said Brown. "I was through the recession in 2009 and 2010 when we thought, 50-60 million pounds of food was an incredible amount of food. We put out 123 million pounds of food last year."
And it's getting worse.
"Yeah. The number of people that need help. But when you go through what we went through in the pandemic in 2020 and you say to yourself, ‘OK, that's going to be the apex,' and then two years later, you find yourself in a similar situation with a similar amount of people needing help. It's a frustrating situation," Brown said.
With no easy fixes. There are roughly 10,000 Americans turning 65 each day and most are not financially prepared to retire, meaning though don't have adequate savings beyond their Social Security.
"And Social Security may or may not be there," said Brown.
Right now, Social Security isn’t nearly enough for those who solely depend on it, yet 37% of men and 42% of women receive half or more of their income from that benefit. And the amount can vary.
According to AARP, a person born in 1960, who earned roughly $50,0000 a year, would get a monthly benefit of $1,338 if they retire at age 62.
Yet, the median cost of a studio apartment in Phoenix is just over $1,400 a month.
"I'm in a Section 8 apartment. I pay $374," said Fred.
Like Sista and Monica, he wasn’t comfortable sharing his last name. He along with his squishy-faced pug, Roxanne, are about 10 minutes from the front of the line. At age 80, he relies on his Social Security to cover his rent and everything else life throws at him. Food is near the bottom of the list.
His advice: "Well, put more money into Social Security. You'll get more in the end."
What he means: earn more, work longer. Easier said than done in a country where the ability to age well is already financially out of reach for so many.
→ Social Security calculator: When to apply for benefits — how much you’ll get
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- A record number of Arizonans visited St. Mary's Food Bank in August
- St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix needs volunteers urgently