Help Goes Mobile for Alameda County's Starving, Aging Population

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Lilian Mira (center) ready to serve seniors with other grocery truck volunteers. (Jenee Darden/KQED)

Going to the mall with my grandmother has been a staple of our "girls time" for years. Now our shopping trips include stops at the supermarket.

Health issues have made it difficult for both her and my grandfather to drive to the grocery store, so sometimes I make the drive from Oakland to Richmond to take them there.

My grandparents are fortunate that they have family nearby to help them with their grocery shopping, but not everyone has access to that kind of support.

Some Oakland seniors report skipping meals to pay for housing and other necessities.

“We estimate somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of all seniors go hungry on a daily basis in Oakland,” said Bryan Ricks, a member of the Oakland Mayor’s Commission on Aging. He defines a person suffering from hunger as anyone who does not consume at least one meal a day.

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“Probably the two biggest issues that are facing seniors are housing and hunger," Ricks said. "People have to prioritize where to spend their resources."

Help Hits the Road

To help get food to seniors in need, Mercy Brown Bag Program launched a mobile grocery truck. The truck drives to seniors and, with the push of a button, features shelving that comes down to allow them to shop free of charge.

The truck is expected to feed 2,500 seniors annually, on top of Mercy Brown Bag's existing efforts to feed low-income seniors in Alameda County. A shortage of warehouse space and requests for easier access to food prompted the program to hit the road.

“We kept getting all of these phone calls from people who couldn’t make it to our sites who needed delivery and didn’t have anyone in the community to help them," said Mercy Brown Bag Program Director Krista Lucchesi. "We wanted to make sure we could get to them.”

Grocery truck volunteer and recipient Iraneo Garcia chats with Mercy Brown Bag Program Assistant Director Nicole St. Lawrence about how to cook lentils.
Grocery truck volunteer and recipient Iraneo Garcia chats with Mercy Brown Bag Program Assistant Director Nicole St. Lawrence about how to cook lentils. (Jenee Darden/KQED)

I met up with Lucchesi and her staff at their pilot site at Eden Issei Terrace, a residential housing community for low-income seniors in Hayward. The truck's shelves hanging from the side are easily accessible for people in wheelchairs. Volunteers are there to help the recipients bag their goods.

One of those volunteers -- and recipients -- is 84-year-old Iraneo Garcia. He and his wife waited four years to get into Eden Issei Terrace. Garcia retired 17 years ago from the San Francisco Carpenters Union and said things were fine then. But as housing costs soared, his dollars didn’t stretch as far.

“The money doesn’t even reach a quarter of as far as I used to get,” said Garcia. “We rented one room from family because we could not afford a house or apartment. And we finally got this place, which is very nice. With this food [truck] around it helps us with the rent and our living. It’s good.”

I watched as people lined up to get their fresh fruits, veggies, lentils, rice and potatoes. I even shared with them how I prepare my yams and lentils. The mobile grocery truck allows a space for seniors to socialize too, which is a plus for seniors who face isolation.

"The people here are happy," said volunteer Lilian Mira, who was all smiles. She doesn't drive and also uses the service. "It will help our little economy."

Crates of fresh fruits and veggies line the inside of the grocery truck for seniors.
Crates of fresh fruits and veggies line the inside of the grocery truck for seniors. (Jenee Darden/KQED)

Health problems, high cost of living and lack of access to transportation make it difficult for seniors to get food. A long-term study from 2014 found there's a domino effect to senior hunger. Lack of nutrition -- whether from not eating or choosing cheaper and unhealthier food -- can increase a senior's risk of depression, heart failure, asthma and other ailments. Lucchesi and Ricks said it’s important to act now, especially as senior populations are expected to grow.

(l-r) Mercy Brown Bag Program's Assistant Director Nicole St. Lawrence and Director Krista Lucchesi after supplying free groceries to seniors in Hayward with the truck.
(L-R) Mercy Brown Bag Program's Assistant Director Nicole St. Lawrence and Director Krista Lucchesi after supplying free groceries to seniors in Hayward. (Jenee Darden/KQED)

People can visit the Mercy Brown Bag Program website or call them to find out where the truck is rolling to next. Lucchesi said the program needs more volunteers, especially to bring groceries to people who can’t physically make it to the truck when it stops in their area.