For the past 30 years the Mercy Brown Bag program has been fighting the battle against senior hunger one bag of groceries at a time.
The program does this by distributing bags of groceries to low-income seniors, 60 years and older, who live in Alameda County. During the last fiscal year alone the Mercy Brown Bag Program served some 3,200 households "with 4,525 individuals who live within those households," said Krista Lucchesi, the program's director. "We distributed 1,014,176 pounds of food in 50,581 grocery bags which weigh an average of 20 pounds each."
To celebrate its 30th year the Mercy Brown Bag Program is hosting a luncheon and volunteer appreciation event at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Mercy Retirement and Care Center, 3431 Foothill Blvd., Oakland. To help mark the celebration, students from nearby St. Elizabeth's grammar and high schools are conducting a food drive for the occasion. Volunteers from Lend Lease will be on site to build a "construction" type of sculpture out of cans in the shape of a grocery bag with a big 30 on it, Lucchesi added.
Each bag of groceries makes a difference. "The seniors do call us a lifeline," Lucchesi said. "They struggle every day with how to feed themselves and still keep a roof over their head or buy some medicine. They never thought it would be this hard."
In testimony she gave at the California Senate Committee on Human Services a few months ago, Lucchesi spoke of an 82-year-old man who as he was pushing his cart filled with free groceries home. He told his friend "I did my budget this morning; after PG&E, the rent, insurance and phone — if everything goes ok — I'll have $1.57 at the end at the end of the month."
About 8 million seniors in the US face the threat of hunger every day according to a study financed by the Meals on Wheels of America Association Foundation. Among those most at risk are women, African American and Hispanic, and those who are separated or divorced or living with a grandchild.
Meanwhile a study cited by Feeding America, which distributes food to about 3 million older Americans every year said that "30 percent of client households indicated that they have had to choose between food and paying for heat and utilities."
The Mercy Brown Bag Program began with a handful of volunteers who wanted to reach out to the seniors who lived around the Mercy Retirement and Care Center, in Oakland's Fruitvale district. The first director, Mercy Sister Patty Creedon, is currently the program's administrator.
Finances originally came from the state of California until 2009 when all state and city of Oakland funding — which made up a quarter of the program's budget — was lost. When other programs that served the community heard about the lost funding they pitched in to help, which eventually allowed the brown bag program to serve seniors where they lived throughout the county. "We slowly expanded," Lucchesi said. "We now have 14 sites throughout the county that are open to the public and work with 53 senior service programs." These senior service programs include meals on wheels, senior centers, low-income senior residences and adult day care programs.
Today the work of the Mercy Brown Bag program is done by more than 400 volunteers who help fill the bags, complete paperwork required to distribute to their neighbors, and deliver some bags, Lucchesi said. "Our motto is 'Seniors Helping Seniors.'"
Lucchesi and two staff members, one part time and the other full time, are paid. All other staffing is provided "in-kind" by Oakland's Mercy Retirement and Care Center, where the program is located. Among the areas covered by this in-kind support are administration (Mercy Sister Patty Creedon), human resources, housekeeping and maintenance. "This really keeps our overhead costs down," the director said. "They also provide warehouse and office space free of charge."
The program welcomes financial support, food drives, paper bag drives, and volunteering. Plus "letting their representatives know that they care about services that help low-income seniors," Lucchesi said.
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