Shaun Clay carries two large grocery bags to a bus stop in Shelby Park — it’s been about three hours since he left his house in Shawnee to get to this food pantry. He’ll wait for this bus for about 25 minutes — it’s late — and spend another hour-and-a-half on two buses to get home. His feet hurt, his back hurts. Clay, 61, is on a fixed income, which is why he’s shopping at the food bank rather than the grocery store about a mile from his house.
He also has a list of chronic health conditions including congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And these are conditions that probably won’t be helped by the bags of largely processed food he’s picking up.
“I gotta do what I gotta do to survive,” he said.
Clay struggles with food insecurity, and estimates suggest one in eight older adults in Louisville are in the same situation. As grocery stores close in some neighborhoods, entire areas of the city are becoming so-called food deserts — places where there’s no access to healthy food.
The combination of a lack of money and a car can make access to food hard for anyone — but those problems are compounded by age. For healthy older adults, a balanced diet is important to stave off normal age-related issues. But eating a heart-healthy diet is especially important for people with chronic health conditions, like Clay.
At the food pantry, there are lots of canned vegetables, which often have high levels of sodium. By the time he gets to the fresh produce section, there aren’t many apples or oranges left, and he gets one of each. But heavier produce doesn’t make the cut — he only has two hands to get all his groceries home.
“See that big ol’ bag of potatoes and onions, I can’t carry that. But I need it,” Clay said at the pantry.
According a 2017 Louisville Metro Department of Health and Wellness, the average life expectancy in the Shawnee neighborhood — where Clay lives — is around 70 years old. Across town in areas around Cherokee Park and throughout most of the East End, it’s about a decade longer. And research has shown access to healthy food contributes to those disparities.
Clay is very aware of those differences, and he knows that his own time is running out. But these are his options; he has no choice but to eat what he can get at food pantries. That’s even if the food has unhealthy levels of sodium or is a food he hates — like peas.
“I’ll get these two bags, and it’s rude to be looking and all that, but I’m going to go home and break my neck carrying these bags, transferring two buses, and there might be five cans of peas in there,” Clay said. “But you can’t be choosy on what you get. Because you know I’m barely getting it.”
And while programs like Meals on Wheels could provide nutritious meals for Clay, the program is only for home-bound seniors that can’t cook or shop. He doesn’t qualify.
“I’m 61 — if I make it to 70, I’m good anyway,” Clay said. “So if I ain’t got nothing but nine years left, I’m eating.”
Edward Frongillo, a professor at the University of South Carolina and expert in nutrition in older adults, knows all too well the toll a poor diet can take on senior citizens.
“People get into a cycle where their nutrient intake isn’t very good,” Frongillo said. “Maybe because of poor appetite, or because they can’t get the food or prepare it, they end up losing muscle mass, they’re less able to do physical exercise, or just get around.”
That leads to seniors being less active, and then eating less because they’re less active, Frongillo said. And without nutritious food, the health problems that come up with aging just get worse, especially in older adults with low incomes.
“And then you end up in this cycle that can result in someone rapidly sort of declining, and their ability to then handle something that happens — they fall and maybe hurt themselves, and then all of a sudden, they’re in bed for a little while,” Frongillo said. “And then pretty soon they’re functioning has gotten to a level that’s so low that they need a level of care that becomes very expensive.”
That’s what eventually happened to Clay: last winter he slipped and fell on the ice. He ended up at a physical therapy facility to heal, and then was home-bound for about two months. There was no way for him to get to the food pantry, or to use his food stamps at the grocery store. And that meant his diet suffered. He said he often went without a meal.
“I call, I beg, I survive: I beg my daughters to bring me a sandwich,” Clay said. “‘Can you stop by McDonald’s? I just seen a commercial for two Big Macs for five dollars, I want both of them.’ That’s what I do. Then I end up owing everybody.”
But across Louisville, nonprofits are trying to work to fill food deserts, which will help older adults like Clay access fresh food closer to home. One project by local food bank Dare to Care is a mobile grocery store that will bring fruits and veggies to Louisville neighborhoods without easy access to food.
“It’s abundantly clear that health and nutrition are directly linked, particularly with seniors,” said Dare to Care Executive Director Brian Riendeau. “And so if you have seniors who are presenting some sort of physical complication, and then they compound it with a lack of food or lack of good food, certainly, it’s going to make things a lot worse.”
The mobile grocery store might make it a little easier for Clay to get those bags of fresh food home.
On Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at one solution to the food insecurity problem for low-income seniors.
This story was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and AARP.