This past weekend members of the Campus Kitchen UGA's Exec board attended the second annual Georgia Senior Hunger Summit. The Senior Hunger Summit is a gathering of policymakers, local service providers, and research experts in Atlanta to learn the best practices, new research, and updates on a statewide plan to address senior hunger.
The landscape of stakeholders in senior hunger is vast – as the Campus Kitchen and Athens Community Council on Aging set up their exhibitor booth, we made new friends and were reacquainted with some familiar faces. Almost immediately, we connected with Sarah Jackson, who began the Campus Kitchen at UGA as a PSO Student Scholar (and my predecessor). We were alongside statewide food service providers such as GA Foods, as well as different Councils on Aging from all over the state.
As we settled into our seats for the opening keynote, it was clear that the Campus Kitchen attendees were among the youngest attendees, but what a good-looking bunch!
Morning Keynote: Enid Borden, National Foundation to End Senior Hunger
Enid chairs the dynamic foundation NFESH – the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. Similar to CKUGA and the Campus Kitchens Project, NFESH has been very invested in using food waste as a tool to regenerate food and senior communities. The Athens Community Council on Aging served as part of their pilot study where senior center participants participated in food waste audits. The results were that across nine senior centers in Georgia, 28% of food distributed within senior centers was wasted in a three month span. This includes pan and plate waste. Just within this sample group, this would amount to 9,000 meals wasted in a year. Enid contrasted this data with the information in NFESH’s hallmark data report, the Annual State of Senior Hunger in America, and the contrast is stark. Nationally, 14.7% of seniors face the threat of hunger, and that rises to 18.3% in Georgia. Georgia is in a cluster of states that rank in the top 10 for highest rates of senior hunger.
There’s a theme at the Summit that Enid touched on – that new innovative solutions must be sought in order to improve access, health outcomes, and reduce cost. Enid also sounded a call to perseverance, and recounted the beautiful story of Itzhak Perlman. No matter our position, station, skill set, age – we all have a call to make music with what remains. We have a charge to collaborate for the well-being of our neighbors.
General Session: Matt Peiper, Open Hand Atlanta
Next we had the pleasure of hearing an update on research related to health outcomes from nutrition programs from a friend of Campus Kitchen, Matt Peiper. Matt leads Open Hand Atlanta, a Meals on Wheels provider for 23 metro Atlanta counties (around 5,500 meals/day). It was discussed that adequate nutrition has been identified in study after study as leading to better health outcomes, including reduced hospital visits, higher prescription drug adherence, and a lower presence of mental health issues. This idea is captured really well in the Food as Medicine movement, and Matt proposed that in the future, healthcare buyers (insurance companies, hospitals, as well as government programs like Medicaid) may come to see they have a vested interest in financially supporting organizations that address nutrition and food security.
A few of Matt’s studies include a UCSF study on HIV and diabetic patients, as well as a Meals on Wheels study.
What excited me the most about this Summit is the emphasis on good data collection. While it would seem intuitive that eating healthy leads to healthy people, scientists know to question everything. That’s why the emphasis on data and shared research methods assures me that Food as Medicine health interventions will thrive. Matt Pieper eloquently demonstrated the benefits of Food as Medicine, outlining the benefits to seniors at a lesser cost to society, citing very recent studies, including a Kaiser study that concluded earlier this month! The newfound attention by researchers means that it will become much easier to prove the benefits, and the implicit societal value, of funding food delivery programs like Meals on Wheels. But the benefits of increased empirical research do not just cover traditional medical treatment, but directly affect how we can diagnose and treat malnutrition. Allison Bernal and Dr. Mary Ann Johnson presented on a national blueprint that has been developed this year to better detect and treat malnutrition in seniors. Of particular note is the simplicity in a new study that was able to accurately identify food insecure adults with a simple two-question assessment. I am confident that support from the public and officials can only grow as the quality and quantity of such research increases in the years to come.
Morning: Legislative Round Table
The second day of the conference started off with a legislative round table comprised of Senator Renee Unterman, Rep, Katy Dempsey, Rep Carolyn Hugley, and Rep. Derrick Jackson. Each legislator described their experiences with senior hunger and stressed the need for a holistic approach at improving senior food-security involving all interested parties, including the state, non-profits, municipalities, businesses, and places of faith. It was encouraging to see members of the state legislature taking interest in senior hunger. State lawmakers are crucial to the end goal of alleviating hunger because without support from policy and legislation, other groups would have a much lower impact than possible. It was also interesting to hear the legislators talk about ending hunger through incentivizing grocery stores to service food deserts, allowing the state to encourage economic growth while addressing a need in many communities.
The first breakout session of Friday included a presentation by UGA’s own Dr. Jung Sun Lee from the Gerontology department. She presented the research she has done involving measuring outcomes meal services to seniors. The purpose of her research was to investigate whether providing seniors with meals actually increases food-security among the seniors being served. Research like this is important both because it allows program managers to determine the effectiveness of the service and because it can be used as evidence when advocating for policy and money allocation.
State Plan for Senior Hunger
The conference ended with an update on the state plan for senior hunger. When revealed at the end of this year or the beginning of next, this will be the first state plan of its kind in the United States. This state plan will lay out goals associated with lowering senior hunger, courses of action, and a timeline of when the goals are to be completed. The plan will enable different entities in the state of Georgia to coordinate better across the state. If interested, be on the lookout for the Department of Human Service’s roll out of the plan in the coming months. The last few minutes of the conference welcomed DHS Commissioner Robyn Crittenden onto stage. She gave a call to action for everybody there and reminded us why senior hunger is an issue that should be focused on: at the end of the day, we are helping build stronger families for a better Georgia.