Seniors Helping Seniors: The Fight to End Senior Hunger

The Mercy Brown Bag Program not only helps fight hunger in the Bay Area—it enriches the lives of senior volunteers.

Bill Shabbas and Bernice Smith aren’t used to asking for help. But when their car broke down two years ago, they didn’t know how they were going to get to the grocery store. At 71 years old, walking a few miles to the nearest supermarket was out of the question and carrying pounds of potatoes and apples on the public bus was taxing. Luckily, they knew about the Mercy Brown Bag Program, a non-profit that delivers food to Bay Area seniors in need.

“If it wasn’t for the Mercy Brown Bag Program, I don’t know where Bill and I would be,” Smith says. “They’ve been lifesavers.”

Fighting to End Hunger in the Bay Area

Started in 1982 by Mercy Retirement & Care Center in Oakland, California, volunteers with the Mercy Brown Bag Program fill and distribute bags of groceries to Alameda County seniors living on fixed incomes. Senior hunger in the Bay Area is a growing problem: In 2014, 52 percent of Alameda County food bank clients had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine and medical care, and 46 percent had to choose between paying for food and paying rent or a mortgage.

To help their neighbors in need, hundreds of volunteers—both Mercy residents and seniors living in the community—help stuff bags with donated carrots, onions, beans, peppers, whole-wheat pasta, olive oil, fruit, oatmeal and other nutritious groceries. Last year, about 4,659 seniors received 52,531 bags of groceries totaling 975,807 pounds of food.

Over the years, Shabbas and Smith have received many of those bags. Smith looks forward to creating scrumptious stews and stir-fried dishes after a delivery from the Mercy Brown Bag Program. Shabbas gets his hands dirty, too, making jams out of fresh fruit. “They keep us well stocked,” he says.

Senior Volunteers Find Purpose

It isn’t just the seniors receiving food who benefit from the program, says Krista Lucchesi, Director of the Mercy Brown Bag Program. The program also enriches the lives of nearly 500 senior volunteers who annually donate more than 21,000 hours of their time to sort, pack and deliver the bags.

“Our volunteers really see this as their job,” Lucchesi says. “It gives them a sense of purpose and meaning. That’s very powerful.”

The program also provides regular exercise for the volunteers, who fill each grocery bag with nearly 20 pounds of food, and socialization opportunities for seniors, who are often at risk of becoming isolated. “Many of the volunteers have been coming for years,” Lucchesi says. “They’ve really built a family.”

The Gift of Giving Back

About four years ago, Savina Hale-Majied was laid off from her job in Alameda, California, and relied on the Mercy Brown Bag Program for groceries. “That bag of food was such a tremendous gift,” Hale-Majied says.

Now McGee is a volunteer with the program. “When I was growing up, a lot of people were really nice to my mom when she was raising us,” McGee says. “All my life, I’ve done that, too. It does my heart well.”

It all goes back to the program’s motto: “Seniors helping seniors.”

“Mercy isn’t just about serving the seniors who live within these walls,” Lucchesi says. “We’re focused on elders throughout the county and making the community a better place.”

Click here for more information on how to donate or volunteer with the Mercy Brown Bag Program.

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