For the last eight years, every first and third Friday of the month, 95-year-old Rosie Sharo has walked from her nearby house to the to volunteer for the Mercy Brown Bag Program.
The program—whose motto is “Seniors helping seniors”—distributes bags of food to low-income seniors twice a month at 15 sites throughout the county, one of which is the Albany Senior Center.
At 95, Sharo is the oldest of the six seniors volunteering for the program, but she says she has no intention of stopping soon.
“I want to keep coming here until I can’t come here anymore,” she said.
While, to some, hunger may seem like an issue that plagues other places in Alameda County but leaves Albany untouched, Sharo and her fellow volunteers know otherwise.
The volunteers arrive at the center at 8 a.m. and form an assembly line. As each paper bag makes its way down the line, it fills up with fresh produce, canned goods, rice and other food.
Seniors who have registered for the program then come to the center throughout the morning to pick up their bags.
Krista Lucchesi, director of the Mercy Brown Bag Program, said seniors are eligible for the program if they are at least 60 years old and have a monthly income of less than $1,354 for one person, or less than $2,192 for two people.
Of the 62 households registered to receive bags last fiscal year, Lucchesi said many of those residents live on as little as $850 a month, making the Mercy Brown Bag Program a necessity.
“In order to pay for everything else, they cut into their food budget and try to take a can of soup and make it last for three days, because that’s the only money they have,” she said.
Most of the Mercy Brown Bag volunteers began helping the program just as a way to occupy their time.
“I was taking classes here, and I saw they needed people to volunteer, and it’s only the first and third Friday of every month, so it didn’t take too much time,” said El Cerrito resident Rita Stein, who has been volunteering for the last 12 years.
While there are only six volunteers who come every week, they have all been dedicated to the program for many years, and they said that good friendships have formed between them.
Lucchesi said, week after week, the volunteers demonstrate their commitment to the program.
“They see it as a job, and they don’t want to miss their job,” she said. “They take responsibility for it.”
Dennis Mineishi, a part-time employee of Mercy Brown Bag who delivers the food and helps stuff bags, said the Albany volunteers’ dedication is what makes the Albany site one of his favorites out of the seven to which he delivers food.
The opportunity to help fight hunger in the Bay Area is rewarding, said Mineishi, and the Mercy Brown Bag volunteers agreed.
“I know my mom’s up there smiling. Instead of being out there golfing every day, I’m doing something great,” he said.
The Mercy Brown Bag Program is by no means the only program in Albany focused on combatting hunger.
In addition to volunteering with Mercy Brown Bag, Nick Mildenhall is also the Albany Meals on Wheels program coordinator.
Meals on Wheels, which is run by the city, is a program that provides meals to Albany residents over age 60 who need food delivered to their house because they are homebound.
The program receives funding from the Title III Older American Act, The Friends of Albany Seniors, and some local businesses, and Project Open Hand prepares the meals.
Mildenhall said he and his volunteers deliver five meals per week to approximately 33 people who are registered for the program.
“Most of the people would not starve if they didn’t have this, but it’s more likely they’re going to get a nutritionally-balanced meal through us, and that’s really our focus,” he said.
Both Meals on Wheels and Mercy Brown Bag focus on helping seniors who, according to Lucchesi, generally go overlooked.
“Senior hunger is something that’s often hidden—we don’t usually talk about it,” she said.
WIDER EFFORTS AGAINST HUNGER
communications manager Michael Altfest said the food bank serves about 49,000 people each week throughout the county.
Those people receive food through one of the food bank’s 275 member agencies, like the Mercy Brown Bag Program, which channel food to individual communities.
Though Albany’s needs may pale in comparison to those of other sites in the county, Altfest stressed that no community is immune to hunger.
According to Altfest, last fiscal year in Albany there were 64 helpline referrals—when a resident calls requesting same-day food assistance—and in the 2010-11 school year more than 18 percent of students were enrolled in free or reduced-price meal plans.
In Albany, which has a fairly high cost of living, Altfest said it is especially hard for seniors on a fixed monthly income to make ends meet.
“Sometimes it’s a choice between whether they use their last few dollars to purchase their medicine or eat food that day,” he said.
And with the recession, the need has only increased, he said. Mercy Brown Bag’s registered recipients have increased from 52 households to 62 in the last four years.
Altfest said residents wishing help can donate to local food drives or volunteer at the food bank’s headquarters in Oakland.
Beyond donating and volunteering, Lucchesi said people can also help by discouraging politicians from cutting funding to programs like Mercy Brown Bag, which lost its government funding a couple years ago.
“People can tell their representatives, 'Don't cut the programs that help people,' because it's incredibly important to these people in need,” she said.
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