An elderly disabled former health-care worker — whose photographs of her walker and medicine bottles are part of a new exhibit launched by the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition — told a group of 25 people who had gathered at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange that she cannot afford both proper nutrition and the cost of her monthly medication.
“I need to buy vegetables and fruits and what not from the store, but I can’t afford to when I’m trying to save for my medications and what not,” said Mary, who shared only her first name. “A lot of people are living this way, but they are not saying nothing to no one. They are too ashamed, and too embarrassed. And if they do say something, nobody hears them. I’m pretty sure if the right people hear people like me, disabled and elderly, and see us as well,” we might be able to fix this problem, she said.
The occasion was the Dec. 8 launch of “NJ Soul of Hunger: The Hidden Reality of Hunger Among Seniors and the Disabled,” a photography exhibit that is part of a broader effort to combat overlooked hunger issues among seniors in the state.
At a news conference held at the JCC by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, representatives of the CRC, the coalition, and other agencies unveiled the exhibit and called on legislators to make it easier for older adults to get food aid.
Explaining why the effort is emphasizing government policy, CRC director Melanie Gorelick said, “As a faith-based group we cannot replace government support to help the hungry.”
Speakers cited statistics on hunger collected by the National Centers for Disease Control showing that 16.3 percent of people 65 and older in New Jersey have incomes below 150 percent of poverty. In Essex County, the number is higher — 22 percent. According to the New Jersey Foundation for aging, these numbers translate to 255,000 New Jersey elders who cannot cover basic living expenses.
Speakers noted that the government food stamp program, known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has been scaled back, leaving even more people at risk.
Gorelick said the federation’s partner agencies, including the JCCs and Jewish Family Service organizations, “are on the front lines” and “spend a lot of our resources on helping to feed the senior populations through meals-on-wheels, emergency food and housing, nutritional food programs for seniors, helping seniors sign up for SNAP, running kosher pantries and congregational soup kitchens, and supporting interfaith pantries.”
Adele LaTourette, executive director of the NJ Anti-Hunger Coalition, urged legislators to complement these efforts by implementing a standard medical deduction for seniors and individuals with disabilities who apply for food stamps, by making it easier for the elderly to apply for the program, and by providing a state supplement to boost minimum household benefits for seniors and those with disabilities.
Existing programs funded through grants and charitable giving, such as the Bobrow Kosher Food Pantry at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, cover just 3 percent of the need, according to Samuel Chu, national synagogue organizer for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
Organizations joining the call for state action include Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, and the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. Also among the speakers at the event were Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Dist. 34); Grace Egan, director of the NJ Foundation for Aging; David Mollen, AARP NJ state president; Diane Riley, director of advocacy for the Community FoodBank of NJ; and Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom.
The CRC organized the photos for the exhibit, most of which were taken by clients of the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest and the Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, both agencies of the Jewish Federation of Greater MW NJ. The exhibit, which was underwritten by the JBJ Soul Foundation, is on display at the Cooperman JCC until Dec. 21.