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Food banks cater to seniors' needs

Canned food is a staple of food banks, but for senior citizens, the sodium content often is too high and cans may be hard to open, especially for those with arthritis.

To address that challenge, Ashland organizations and residents have teamed up to gather and distribute to seniors items such as low-sodium, pull-tab soups.

At the Ashland Senior Center, two-dozen boxes with food especially chosen to meet seniors' needs recently awaited delivery.

The food came from the Ashland Emergency Food Bank in coordination with the Ashland Food Project — a program in which residents buy food during their regular shopping trips and then put the goods out six times a year for pickup by neighborhood volunteers.

To get food items for seniors, Christine Dodson, senior program director at the Ashland Senior Center, devised a wish list that she shared with the food bank and the Ashland Food Project.

"Some seniors have difficulty getting to the store. Some are homebound," Dodson said. "Ideally, these are items that people could have in their pantry."

Low-sodium foods are ideal since many people have to watch their salt intake because of high blood pressure and other health issues, Dodson said.

"Fortunately, a lot of foods are available now without sodium," she said.

Single-serving meals allow people to pop a meal in the microwave without having to cook. Those types of food are much more useful than, for example, bags of dried beans that require extensive preparation, Dodson said.

The single-serving meals also meet the needs of widows and widowers. Additionally, people's appetites often diminish as they grow older, she said.

Energy bars and dried fruit, especially raisins and individually wrapped dried plums, are popular. Nutritional drinks such as Ensure help people get nutrients when they don't want to eat a meal, Dodson said.

At the senior center, which is at 1699 Homes Ave. in Hunter Park, people who are 60 years old and older can gather each weekday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for a hot, prepared lunch and socializing with friends. Payment is by donation.

Dodson said green tea is the most popular tea at the senior center, so she included that on the wish list for seniors. Today's health-conscious seniors prefer it for its low caffeine content and antioxidants, she said.

For fun, she included hard candy on the list.

"I asked for that because my grandmother always had a bowl set out," Dodson said.

Ready-made Jello and pudding, low-sodium crackers and canned vegetables are also on the senior items wish list.

To get the word out to donors, the Ashland Food Project has posted the wish-list on its website at www.ashlandfoodproject.com under the heading "Especially for Seniors." The Ashland Food Project plans its next round of neighborhood food pick-ups for Saturday, June 9.

Normally at this time of year, the food bank's offerings would be slim because it would have gone through its surge of holiday donations from the winter. But the year-round Ashland Food Project has stabilized the food supply, said Susan Harris, Ashland Emergency Food Bank manager.

That has allowed the food bank to put together food boxes aimed at specific populations such as senior citizens and children, she said.

Harris said there is enough food for the boxes, but the food bank is always in need of senior-specific items to stock the shelves in its building at 560 Clover Lane.

Seniors who are mobile enough to shop at the food bank are often in need of low-sodium and low-sugar items, she said.

"We're always slim on that. We would welcome more," Harris said.

Harris said the number of seniors using the food bank is growing, likely because of Ashland's aging population and rising energy costs.

For all of 2011, seniors age 65 and older made up 4.6 percent of the people served by the food bank.

In March of this year, the most recent month available, that percentage had risen to 9.4 percent of those served, according to food bank statistics.

Like the Ashland Food Project, the food bank posts updated lists of most-needed items on its website at ashlandemergencyfoodbank.org.

Harris said that the many local residents who donate food are doing a good job of shopping conscientiously.

"You are contributing to building a sense of community by the effort and thought you are putting into your shopping," she said. "You are shopping for a healthier community."

Vickie Aldous is a reporter with the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.