by Peggy Ingraham
For many folks, October ranks high on the list of favorite months. And why not? In many parts of the country Autumn is the most beautiful of seasons. Fall leaves explode with color, transforming the landscape and competing for attention with that proverbial “October’s bright blue weather” immortalized in Helen Hunt Jackson’s 19th century poem that is still remembered today – by many seniors anyway. Traditionally, farmers head to the fields to harvest a whole host of autumn vegetables and on other types of fields high school football players romp with reckless abandon to the cheers of fellow students, friends and family. And children of all ages start choosing costumes and preparing for Halloween. It is a holiday that reaches across cultures and generations, it seems, and has spawned more than a cottage industry. “Seasonal” stores pop up in malls, orange lights festoon the streets of many neighborhoods and bags of candy greet shoppers at the entrance of most every grocery store. Yes, it is the temporary season of fun and fruitfulness. Usually. But not always and not for everyone.
Here in Virginia and most of the Mid-Atlantic region, the leaves have gone directly to brown and the dry winds are already hurling them to the ground. Harvesting and even fall planting is only a fraction of what’s normal this time of year. It has been a dry spring and summer, hovering along the edge of an official drought but still severe enough to disrupt local agriculture. What food consumers will inevitably reap from this is higher prices, even if the increase is only slight. So much for a bountiful harvest.
But what of Halloween? It approaches this year as every year. The candy manufacturers will doubtless emerge from the season unscathed, or better. Here’s a confession. Some of us don’t really enjoy Halloween that much. In fact, we begin rolling our eyes as the mounds of treats seem to multiply year over year. I admit, I am one of those less than enthusiastic holiday greeters. But that dislike somehow evaporates when it comes to greeting the trick-or-treaters at the front door. My annual Halloween ritual seems to be a last minute run back to the store to supplement the bags of candy I already have, just on the off chance that I might “run out.” I never do. Instead, I always end up chiding myself for spending so much on sugary treats. Yes, candy is expensive. In fact, I generally waste more on candy than many seniors receive in SNAP benefits monthly. Now think about that for a moment.
Now, what does all of have to do with hunger? Looking at these three H’s together might just tell a story. And therein lies the segue to hunger – and senior hunger to be specific – the tie-in between harvest (and drought) and holidays and hunger. To use a hackneyed but true expression, senior hunger “never takes a holiday.” The most recent academic research revealed an important fact. In America, 7.7 million older individuals (age 60+) experienced some level of food insecurity in the most recent year for which we have statistics.
The other data show that only about 80 percent of seniors who are eligible for SNAP apply for and receive benefits. That means that 20 percent do not. To use another warn out expression, there is something wrong with that picture. In the face of this, even some of the most ardent advocates for seniors, present the glass half full argument saying we should be focusing on 80 percent “success” rate rather than the 20 percent failure. On behalf of those 20 percent only half full glass folks – or, worse, those half full to empty pantry seniors — we say it is time we pay attention to the literally millions of seniors who need our assistance. Then we need to consider just what form that assistance should take.
We don’t dispute that providing hungry elders a monthly SNAP benefit that pales against my Halloween candy expenditures will not change the world. But it will provide some tangible, if minimal, relief. An all-out campaign at the local level to identify and enroll every eligible senior is a good place to start. That is an activity that all community-based group need to be engaged in, particularly now when the poor will most certainly be the ones to suffer most if and when food prices go up on account of a less plentiful than usual harvest.
That’s the real goblin – not the small ones in cute costumes – that we should be afraid of this year. And there’s no pretending about it — or ignoring it.