Lunch at Asbury Dwellings. All photos Darrow Montgomery.
Lunch at Asbury Dwellings. All photos Darrow Montgomery.

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Monday’s menu pulled inspiration from France, pairing beef burgundy with egg noodles, bread, steamed zucchini, salad with a choice of dressing, fruit, and milk. The meal was served in Shaw, but not at a French bistro, and not at any of the neighborhood’s new and buzzed-about restaurants. 

Rather, the beef burgundy took up the largest compartment on a plate of food offered free of charge to 20 senior citizens at the Asbury Dwelling apartments. The meal was a hit, but the seniors’ favorites are fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, according to the site’s nutritionist Juliet Gyimah-Akesson.

Asbury Dwellings is one of 47 community dining sites in D.C. where adults 60 and older can eat a free hot lunch regardless of their income bracket. The DC Office on Aging funds the program, and among its centers are one that caters specifically to Asian Pacific Islanders and another that offers halal meals. 

In fiscal year 2017, the city provided 346,026 “congregate meals” to 5,333 seniors, according to Karen Dorbin, DCOA’s director of external affairs and communications. Congregate meals are more than nutritionally beneficial. They free up seniors’ money, and seniors use the dollars saved to buy other necessities, like medication. The meals also coax seniors living solo out of their apartments for a social occasion.

For those too frail or otherwise unable to venture out, the city also offers various home-delivery programs. Some are vacuum-packed, refrigerated meals, while others don’t require any heating or storage. Dorbin says D.C. seniors received 681,034 home-delivered meals in fiscal year 2017. 

But not everyone knows these and other programs exist. In D.C., 17.78 percent of seniors 60 and older face the threat of hunger, according to a National Foundation to End Senior Hunger report, published in Aug. 2017. That is the 15th highest percentage of hungry seniors in the nation (with the District counted in a list of states). D.C.’s wide income gap and high cost of living exacerbate the issue. 

Beatrice Evans, 64, lives in the Triangle View senior residences in Ward 7 with her 90-year-old mother. “I don’t know of any place where seniors can go and get a hot meal,” Evans says. There are four congregate meal sites in her ward. The closest one, the Phillip T Johnson Senior Center, is less than a half mile away. To an able-bodied Washingtonian, or a Washingtonian with a car, 0.3 miles is nothing. To some seniors without transportation, that’s far enough to prevent them from attending.

Evans doesn’t think her neighbors eat properly. “They’re not sure of what they’re going to have to eat or whether they’re going to have two or three meals a day,” she says. They gather around the vending machines in the lobby instead of over a hot meal.

“During the holidays, you get a lot of relatives, but there are a lot of seniors who live by themselves and can’t get to the grocery store and cooking is a problem,” Evans continues. “Most just stay up in their apartments.” 

Others go hungry because they don’t eat the meals their caregivers prepare when the dishes are unfamiliar. “People from different cultures cook very differently,” Evans says. “If you’re Ethiopian, you eat one way. If you’re Jamaican, you eat another way.”

Evans and her mother receive a monthly box of 30 to 40 pounds of staples through the USDA’s Grocery Plus Commodity Supplemental Food Program available to D.C. seniors below a certain income level. Though described as “healthy groceries,” nothing is fresh. Products include shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, and canned tuna. “It’s a survival kit,” Evans says. “But a peanut butter sandwich is better than starving. They never give us jelly.” 

Evans thinks that people may not know about congregate meals and other programs earmarked for hungry seniors because older Americans, like her mother, are hesitant to speak up. “They’re from an era where they didn’t question authority,” she says. “The city could do a lot better.” 

She also theorizes that food-insecure seniors don’t spread the word out of fear the food will run out. They’re in survival mode. “That is the biggest hindrance, not sharing information,” Evans says. “Information is powerful. If people knew about this stuff, they would come out.” 

Reaching isolated seniors is a complex challenge. “We can’t just send a tweet or post something on Facebook,” Dorbin says. “The hardest part is making sure every senior in the District knows we exist.” While congregate meals are open to anyone over 60, DCOA more meticulously determines who’s eligible for home-delivered meals. “Some people say, ‘I’m 60, I want a free meal,’ but we have to prioritize the neediest people facing significant barriers.” 

DCOA relies on its community partners for outreach since there is no magic registry of seniors living in the District. “We try to train people in the community to locate isolated seniors,” Dorbin explains.

There’s room for improvement with DCOA’s website. Clicking through to find congregate meal locations, City Paper was foiled twice by “access denied” messages. “Our website is really not that great,” Dorbin admits. “We used to have an interactive map to help seniors find a community dining site, but it’s been on and off. That’s one thing we’re trying to repair.”

Baby Boomers have begun to enter their retirement years in droves. According to a Population Reference Bureau bulletin published in Dec. 2015, the number of Americans who are 65 and older will more than double by 2060. By the same year, nearly a quarter of Americans will be older than 64.

“It will be critically important to meet the needs of these older adults so they can live in the neighborhoods they know and love,” says Seabury Resources for Aging CEO Deborah Royster. D.C. executes its senior hunger reduction programs through a network of eight community-based agencies (one per ward) called the Senior Service Network. Seabury is the designated grantee for Wards 5 and 6. The agency delivered 125,000 meals to homebound older adults in fiscal year 2017. (In addition to the ward-based centers, there are six city-funded senior wellness centers.)

She says that helping seniors age in place as their segment of the population swells will require additional resources, such as transportation services and affordable housing, but that it’s a sound investment. “Everyone benefits because they’re able to remain healthy and independent,” she says. “It benefits us as taxpayers. When these services are provided, they prevent premature placement in nursing homes, which are much more costly.”

Lura Barber, the director of hunger initiatives for the National Council on Aging, says hunger prematurely reduces independence for seniors. “There’s a measure called ‘activities of daily living,’” she says. “These include getting up from a chair, using the bathroom independently, and cooking food.” Going hungry or being at risk of hunger make your ability to perform ADLs more like that of someone 14 or 21 years older. 

The hope—across several organizations and offices—is that public and private programming spin a wide enough web to catch every senior who doesn’t know where they’ll get their next meal. 

Several organizations work to increase low-income senior enrollment in SNAP (formerly food stamps). One of them is D.C. Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit headed by Beverley Wheeler. SNAP allots seniors living alone a maximum of $119 per month to spend on groceries, yet Wheeler says only half of eligible local seniors are enrolled. D.C. Hunger Solutions’ staff and volunteers post up at senior centers to help people sign up. But it’s not as simple as it could be. 

First, there’s an emotional hurdle. “Seniors don’t want to take food out of other people’s mouths,” Wheeler says. “Some seniors are embarrassed they got this far in life and they’re in need of food. We help them understand that they shouldn’t have to choose between paying for medication, food, or heat.” 

Second, D.C. is one of very few jurisdictions that doesn’t have an online application. That means seniors have to file their paperwork in person at an Economic Security Administration office. That’s an extra trip, and transportation is notoriously difficult.

“We’re just talking about getting you ready to eat,” Wheeler says. “We haven’t gotten to the part of where to find food. Wards 7 and 8 are a monster for moving around.” The two wards have only three full-service grocery stores. “If you can find a place to buy food, get your SNAP benefits, and figure out how to get your food home and cook it, you’re good to go.”

Wheeler calls D.C.’s lack of an online application “crazytalk” given the volume of web-savvy seniors and caregivers. She says she’s been promised one for 10 years. “Something needs to happen because there’s no excuse for the nation’s capital not to have an online application process.”

Wheeler hopes to up enrollment by 25 percent by the end of the year. Barber from the National Council on Aging thinks more seniors would take advantage of SNAP if they could get groceries delivered. She’s encouraged that that the USDA is working on pilot programs that would allow SNAP participants to utilize services like Instacart and Peapod. 

Other programs focus on the most vulnerable segments of the senior population—the ill and the homeless. Food & Friends is a nonprofit born out of the AIDS movement in the ’80s. They provide meals for those living with life-changing illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, and poorly controlled diabetes in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. In 2017, about one third of Food & Friends clients were 65 and older according to Carrie Stoltzfus, the deputy executive director for programs and public funding. 

Food & Friends delivers three nutritious meals a day up to six days per week at no cost. There are 11 diets and any three can be combined to provide a custom-designed meal program. With the help of the organization’s nutritionist Renee Currie, Food & Friends constantly looks to improve the quality of its meals. “Just because they’re getting it or free doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be getting what’s best,” Stoltzfus says. “It takes 9,000 volunteers to get this work done.”

Dorbin, of DCOA, also prioritizes quality. “This past year we had a tasting panel to help determine who the caterer would be,” she says. “We invited seniors representing each ward to sample the food and vote on it.” For community dining meals, DCOA held a town hall with the caterer at two of its sites and gave participants scorecards to rate each meal for a month.

The Oasis Senior Center in Ward 2, which is at 1226 Vermont Ave. NW, caters to homeless seniors. It is one of the city’s 47 congregate meal sites, and the center’s director Tanea J. McQueen says about 40 seniors dine on a daily basis. “You come because you’re hungry, but hopefully you get so much more,” McQueen says.

She is impressed by the services for hungry seniors in the District, and many agree that D.C. is advanced in terms of programs and benefits, but there is work to be done raising awareness and enrolling participants. 

“Whenever you talk about hunger, people talk about kids,” Barber says, hoping the city and the nation further invest in caring for its seniors. “You’re going to be a senior a lot longer than you were ever a kid. We have this cultural perception of being older that you hit 65 and inevitably decline. But it’s a dynamic time of life.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncity