Program takes bite out of hunger

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Robert Friedman

Henry Bouchat, a resident of the Tiber Hudson senior apartment building in Ellicott City, selects groceries provided by Food on the 15th with the help of student Gabriel Pellerano. With contributions from the community and the help of local students, the nonprofit donates food to older adults in several Howard County apartment communities in the middle of each month, when money can start to get tight.
Photo by Christopher Myers

By the middle of the month, after paying her bills, Linda Umstead finds her $1,077 Social Security check stretched about as far as it can go. But she still needs groceries for the rest of month.

The 71-year-old Ellicott City resident said she “definitely would have difficulties” affording the food she needs without the “Food on the 15th” program — an all-volunteer effort that provides free groceries to older Howard County residents around the 15th of each month. 

“I have diabetes and high blood pressure, and I can’t work anymore,” said Umstead, who spent 45 years as a bartender before she stopped working in 2004. “I feel blessed” to be a Food on the 15th recipient, she said.

Sharlotte Wilcox, 66, who receives food stamps (the daily allowance is about $4.50) is also helped by the program. Wilcox used to interview patients at healthcare facilities, but lost her job two years ago. Also living on her Social Security check, she is helped by Food on the 15th to fill her monthly nutrition needs.

“They are outstandingly nice people,” Wilcox said of the volunteers, most of whom are local students — from elementary to high school — and their parents.

Umstead and Wilcox each live alone in the 25-unit Tiber Hudson low-income senior apartments in Ellicott City. Each month, Food on the 15th makes a “grocery-store” delivery to Tiber Hudson, setting out food by categories on tables in the building’s community room.

Many are canned goods, though sometimes fresh fruits and vegetables are available. The residents then do their “shopping,” the food is bagged, and the students and their parents help carry the packages to the apartments.

“For those of us who don’t drive and can’t go grocery shopping, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Umstead.

A growing problem

In the U.S., 9.3 million people over the age of 60 — one in six — face the threat of hunger, according to the National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging, which coordinates senior nutrition programs around the country.

The number of “food insecure seniors” is expected to increase 50 percent by 2025, when the youngest of the baby boom generation reaches age 60.

The latest Census Bureau figures show that Howard County residents have an average annual household income of $108,000, the second highest in the nation. Nevertheless, “food insecurity” among seniors in the county is a “serious problem,” according to Maryland Hunger Solutions, a Baltimore-based non-profit that fights hunger.

Enter Julie Rosenthal of Clarksville and Food on the 15th. [No relation to the publisher of the Beacon.]

In 2006, working in conjunction with the county’s Coalition of Geriatric Services (COGS), Rosenthal founded the award-winning program she still runs on what she proudly says is a “zero” budget.

The food, mostly non-perishables, is donated by students, teachers, parents and staff of the schools involved in the program, as well as from companies, nonprofits, churches and members of the local community. Some nonprofits, such as COGS, make Food on the 15th a prime beneficiary.

For the past eight years, students and their parents have been sorting, bagging and delivering food to residents of two low-income senior buildings: Tiber Hudson in Ellicott City and Morningside Park Apartments in Jessup. During the summer, area churches have taken up the collections and made deliveries.

County schools involved in the project include Pointers Run Elementary in Clarksville, Dayton Oaks Elementary, Clarksville Elementary, Clarksville Middle School and Atholton High School in Columbia.

A new Asian pantry

Residents at Longwood Apartments in Columbia were added to the program in 2014 with the help of the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus (UMBC).

Rosenthal, who works in UMBC’s Asian Studies Program as a program management specialist (which involves marketing and community outreach, among other things), told the program director that there were many low-income Asian seniors living at Longwood. An internship was created for UMBC students to work as translators and food pantry workers for the many Chinese and Korean residents living there.

The Asian Food Pantry, based on the Food on the 15th model, was started last year at the five-story building. Now about 90 of the 170 residents receive their special noodles, soy beans, seaweed, fish, canned fruit and Asian condiments without charge.

The student interns implemented and maintain the pantry. Besides translating for the residents, many of whom are immigrants who speak little or no English, they also assist with music, English and exercise classes at the complex.

Intentionally intergenerational

Rosenthal, 56, said in a recent interview that, so far, Food on the 15th has delivered more than 18,000 bags of groceries and toiletries free to low-income seniors.

The program began, she said, when she realized that her then 10-year-old daughter thought that food was easily available to everyone. “She thought that if you didn’t have food, you just went to the ATM and got out money and bought it,” said Rosenthal.

So she set out to teach her daughter and other youngsters that, even in such an affluent community as Howard County, food could be in short supply for a significant number of older people. Many of them, she noted, even had to choose between buying needed medications and groceries as their monthly income ran out.

Rosenthal decided to start a community service project for children of all ages who would donate their time and learn the hard facts of life for many of their elders.

“I wanted them to see the beginning, the middle and the end of the project, when they collected the food, sorted it and delivered it,” Rosenthal said. “The parents also were involved.”

How much time does Rosenthal still put into the project? “I am generally working on Food on the 15th or the Asian Food Pantry seven days a week,” she said, “since I’m always checking e-mail, texts and Facebook to make sure that I respond to interns and volunteers on a timely basis so that the program moves forward.”

What drives the mother of two, who in 2013 won the Association of Community Services Volunteer of the Year Award, to continue to devote what she figures must be “thousands of hours” to the program?

“I get a great pleasure in helping people,” she said. “It makes me happy.”

For more information on the program, or to make a donation, visit the organization’s website at www.foodonthe15th.org or look for its Facebook page. Rosenthal can be emailed at foodonthe15th@gmail.com.

Tax deductible donations may also be made out to the Coalition of Geriatric Services (COGS) and mailed to The Coalition of Geriatric Services, P.O. Box  2131, Ellicott City, MD  21041. Please write “Food on the 15th” on the memo line.