Three Ways Hungry Seniors Can Help Build a New Food System

GL-Senior-Center-Farm-tripAt this stage of my career, I’m pretty darn good at working a crowd. Between running nightclubs in DC’s musical heydays (1979-87), building D.C. Central Kitchen, pioneering social enterprise, speaking all over America about the economic role on nonprofits, and now opening the L.A. Kitchen, I can spin a darn good yarn and keep just about any audience engaged. Yet, for all that show biz / business experience, I often watch audiences – particularly young audiences – go south when I start talking about the rapidly advancing wave of older Americans.

It’s not their fault; every generation sees their elders as more a burden than an asset, and to people under 30, we Boomers must appear like characters out of a zombie apocalypse movie…a horde that can’t be killed, and who ate our own brains decades ago.

Or, more likely, we just aren’t part of young people’s consciousness at all.

Fair enough.

But I believe there are powerful reasons why this discussion is smart business for ALL who care about food systems, the economy, and our society.

  1. If we don’t support older adults as they age, the economy tanks. The 80 million Boomers were raised to be the perfect super-consumers. Born at the dawn of the age of advertising, they were raised to buy whatever was put in front of them; TV dinners, cars, houses, movies, cigarettes, Coke…and by default, not save. And very soon, millions of them will suddenly realize that they don’t have remotely enough money saved to live independently in their later years. Sure, we could cast blame, but that serves no real purpose…and if we don’t want our economy to be dragged backwards by an unsustainable number of poverty stricken, unhealthy older people, we have no choice but to take action. But that does not mean we have to make this about charity. In fact, if we get smart, feeding older citizens healthy, locally sourced meals could present huge social and economic opportunities and help avoid an insurmountable strain on our health care system.
  2. Feeding older adults could fuel the local food economy. For the last few years, Fresh Start, DC Central Kitchen’s social enterprise business has purchased a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of slightly blemished/imperfect produce from local farmers, which job-training-grads-turned-employees use to create made-from-scratch school lunches, for a contract in which they are reimbursed about $2.80 per meal. Here in L.A., we want to use this same formula to create healthy senior meals. Why? Because these new seniors will be MUCH more health conscious, and will likely demand locally sourced, healthy meals, and the reimbursement rate for a senior meal is over $3.50 per meal. If, through these two programs, we can show the collective purchasing power of school food AND senior meals, then we’d be able to demonstrate an economy of scale that could be a powerful incentive for local governments to consider investing in their own version of a local food system.
  3. They VOTE. For those who didn’t pay attention, older voters just decided the midterm elections. They are the most reliable voters in America. Unlike the current older generation, who are fearful of changing norms and new ideas, the aging Boomers could be dynamic allies by voting to help create a new food economy… if we guide them there. And what better place to start than over a meal. The Boomers weren’t all hippies, but many…MANY…of them will want to stay engaged, be active, and contribute. Think Code Pink x 15 million, and you can see where I’m going with this. Between the younger generation that has been working hard to create new food systems, and the older folks who are starting to see the health and social benefits of local food, we might have enough votes to finally regain control over what we eat in America.

SO…while it’s easy to try to forget that these seniors are coming, I urge you to think about what a golden opportunity we have to help them, help us, help America by creating a more vibrant food economy in every town.