KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas City metro nonprofit assists more than 1,200 senior citizens who live below the poverty line and face food insecurity.
“We are often the last hope that a senior or an adult has,” Jack Cornelison, director of programs and facilities at Phoenix Family, said. “We are often the difference between a senior surviving.”
Phoenix Family, 3908 Washington Street, helps residents live independent lives through housing, food and other assistance.
Senior citizens are especially susceptible to food insecurity. In 2019, 5.2 million Americans older than 60 – or one in 14 seniors – had limited access to food. Experts said food insecure seniors are more likely to develop nutrition-related health problems, and the financial and physical barriers of aging do not make access to nutrition any easier.
Cornelison has seen a twofold increase in the number of food insecurity and emergency services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Wellness checks, and mental health services, and crisis intervention services, and those types of things,” Cornelison said.
The residents Phoenix Family serves face financial, physical, emotional and geographical barriers. Access to benefits, health care and transportation might be a struggle as well. And with a lot of seniors in quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers with Phoenix Family are meeting them where they are by going door-to-door.
“Even though they seem so small, it adds up,” Erma Bazzil, who lives on Social Security, said. “You’re trying to pay down bills, do your daily living, get to the doctor… Well if I don’t have to spend money on food, then I can do those things much easier.”
Bazzil said she relies on local food pantries for her groceries. She spent her retirement savings on a major ankle surgery following a car accident in the '90s. It has been difficult to stand on her own since then.
The rate of food insecurity was three times higher for senior with disabilities, according to a 2019 report by Feeding America.
“This wouldn’t be normally on my budget to buy for myself," Bazzil said. "And I like it. It’s a great experience to get fresh foods. People just don’t understand, the assistance that you get is most appreciated.”
For Sharon Carter, the Phoenix Family’s outreach felt like an answered prayer.
“I was at the highest risk — older, African American, I had had cancer. I could not afford to get sick again, so I quarantined,” said Carter. “To have the food now brought to the door was phenomenal.”
Following her cancer diagnosis and other health complications, she had to close down her small business due to COVID-19. Carter said she had to immediately adjust her lifestyle, but through all the hardships, asking for help was the hardest part.
“My daughter had to tell me when I had cancer, ‘Mama, you need to learn to ask for help and then receive it.’ It is like learning to walk,” Carter said.
The best way the public can help, according to Cornelison, is to volunteer. He said many seniors just want to feel heard and not forgotten.