Barbara Boyd, left, receives commodities from ElderServe’s center, where she’s also a volunteer. Lisa Smith, right, is the  care manager of the center. | Photo by Darla Carter

A west Louisville grandmother, Barbara Boyd, sat at a table at an ElderServe building in Russell recently, directing folks to cardboard boxes of commodities, such as canned goods, cereal and whole wheat pasta.

Boyd, an 80-year-old Cardinals fan dressed in red and black, said she knows how essential the products are because she’s not just a volunteer, she’s also a recipient.

She’s able to maximize her budget and buy fewer groceries, she said, by supplementing her diet with the staples that Louisville’s Dare Care Food Bank provides to ElderServe’s Senior Center at 631 S. 28th St.

More than 120,000 people in the Louisville area have challenges obtaining enough nutritious food to lead to a healthy and active life, but organizations, from nonprofits like ElderServe to doctors’ offices, are working to address the problem.

About 85 individuals like Boyd, who are 60 and older and meet income guidelines, pick up a box of food each month from the ElderServe center, which is sometimes referred to as Oak & Acorn.

Barbara Boyd is also a volunteer at ElderServe’s center in Russell. | Photo by Darla Carter

Boyd said the free goods help her to gas up her car more easily and better afford her medications. “It mainly helps with my prescriptions because, like I say, I’m on six of them” for high blood pressure, acid reflux and other ailments.

The needs of people like Boyd who are at risk of hunger or of not being able to live their best life because of poverty or other equity issues is part of a growing community conversation.

“Everybody deserves to have access to good quality food that they can afford. It’s a really significant issue in our community,” said T Gonzales, interim director of the Center for Health Equity, which is an arm of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

“It’s not that people don’t just have what’s considered food or things that have calories in them,” Gonzales explained. “But do they have access to nutrient rich, healthy fruits and vegetables and other foods that are healthy for your body that your body really needs in order to maintain itself and have the highest kind of health and quality of life possible” and to reduce the burden of chronic disease and other health issues, such as diabetes, obesity and cancer?

Despite a decline in Jefferson County’s food insecurity rate, to 15.8 percent in 2016 from 17.8 percent in 2011, there are still many individuals for whom food is an issue, according to local and national sources.

There were more than 120,000 food-insecure people in Jefferson County as of 2016, according to Map the Meal Gap 2018. That’s a project of Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization with a nationwide network of food banks, such as Dare to Care.

Many local organizations — from Dare to Care and its partners, including various area ministries, to New Roots and the Louisville Association for Community Economics (LACE) — are working to address various aspects of food insecurity. Affected individuals and families often live in economically disadvantaged areas of town, such as west Louisville, with limited access to full-service groceries.

LACE is working to create a cooperatively owned and operated grocery store to help increase food access in a yet-to-be-determined local neighborhood, and New Roots continues to work with communities in and out of Louisville to form Fresh Stop Markets, where people buy shares of fresh, local, organic produce on a sliding scale at “pop up” locations like churches and community centers.

“Everybody has a right to access fresh, local organic food, no matter where you live, how much money you make, what race you are, how old you are, everyone should have that same opportunity,” said New Roots Executive Director Karyn Moskowitz.

Prescriptive pharmacies

Dr. Becky Carothers shows off a section of the food pantry at Norton Medical Associates – Broadway. | Photo by Darla Carter

Other groups are trying to increase access to healthy food through what are sometimes referred to as prescriptive pharmacies.

Since 2016, Norton Medical Associates – Broadway has helped about 500 food-insecure families by giving them with healthy fare from an on-site pantry, along with inexpensive recipes. The downtown pantry at 230 E. Broadway is operated in conjunction with Dare to Care and has been replicated at other medical offices, including Norton practices in Okolona and Springhurst.

Families are screened when they come into the Broadway office with a couple of basic questions, such as whether they’ve worried in the past 12 months that their food would run out before money came in to buy more.

“Food pantries always have different types of food in them, but ours is more prescriptive, meaning we only want to provide healthy food,” said Dr. Erin Frazier, medical director of Norton Children’s Prevention and Wellness. “… Anyone who says, ‘Yes, I’d like to have some food,’ can have food. … We have a list that people can checkbox what they would actually use and then we go and get it for them.”

The screening questions are asked of everyone, regardless of their insurance status, and demand tends to go up around certain holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, Frazier said. “We’ve had working families that are struggling,” she said.

Pediatricians are concerned about the issue because children who are food insecure may suffer from ADHD and other learning problems as well as mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, Frazier said.

“We’re interested in their medical health, but … we know that mental health or how you’re going to do in school, the stressors that you have at home affect your physical well-being as well,” she said.

Tiffany Harris appreciates the food pantry at Norton Medical Associates – Broadway | Photo provided

Tiffany Harris, a Shawnee mom of five, has used the pantry a handful of times and said it’s been very helpful to her family.

“The food is good quality and quantity,” said Harris, 36. “It’s convenient for me and my kids due to the fact that I don’t have to actually go around, trying to look for food pantries or ask people do they know where one’s at.”

Harris needs help from time to time because both she and her husband are disabled and sometimes have extra mouths to feed when associates rely on them for temporary shelter. The family makes use of area soup kitchens, but groceries are still an issue.

She recently recalled an occasion when, “I was like ‘Oh, God, please help me some type of way cause my kids (are) running out of food’,” and the doctor’s office called, answering her prayer.

“People just don’t understand how hard it is when you have a big family to take care of, you’re on a fixed income and … trying to help people out and they take advantage of you,” Harris said. “It’s very hard and difficult.”

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Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.