SUN CITY CENTER — For some of the residents in this retirement community, the dream of kicking back and enjoying life to the fullest has turned to a daily worry about where their next meal will come from.
Instead of engaging in an active social life and making new friends, they're engaging in a search for assistance and wondering how they're going to make scant necessities into a meal.
A recent study, commissioned by the SouthShore Council assessing the needs and concerns of the greater Sun City Center community, revealed that there are many residents who are going hungry because they have simply out-lived their assets.
Longevity brings with it the problem of dwindling income, forcing some seniors to have to choose between paying the mortgage, buying costly medications or purchasing nutritious food.
"We love to think that all of Sun City Center is affluent retirees when we know that just isn't the case," said Dana Dittmar, CEO of the SCC Chamber of Commerce. "They will tell you at Winn Dixie that we have seniors who come in and buy cat food and they don't have a pet because at 56 cents a can, it's affordable protein."
The use of the community's Meals On Wheels has increased notably as seniors look for inexpensive meal preparation, and local food banks are noticing that more seniors are frequenting their facilities in search of more affordable or free food.
One aspect of this issue in the community is the fact that it is a "hidden" problem. Many seniors are reluctant to seek help from local services because they feel there is a stigma attached to asking for help. They see it as a "hand out" and are too proud to admit they need it.
"The senior generation is used to taking care of themselves," said Don Hinderliter who works with the Mary Petro Foundation in Sun City Center. "When folks face there is a need for help, whether through the loss of financial resources due to the death of a spouse or outliving their savings, they are reluctant to seek help and are often ashamed when they have to."
Another problem with seniors buying nutritious food on a budget is that they don't always make the best choices. Many will buy individual servings because they're usually buying for one person.
Those individual servings are generally more expensive and are highly processed, making them less desirable and not as healthy as fresh meats, fruits or vegetables. It's just easier to buy a little something that can be popped into the microwave, so they are not always buying the most nutritious, cost-efficient foods.
Although food insecurity represents a growing problem in Sun City Center, help is out there through several local organizations.
One of the largest and yet one of the best-kept secrets in this community is the Mary Petro Foundation.
Petro was a community resident who passed away in 2009 leaving behind a $2.3 million trust to help her less fortunate neighbors. This money is specifically earmarked for residents with limited income who have difficulty paying for food or medications.
Residents who qualify for the program can get up to $100 a month for food and $1,500 a year for medication.
"This past fiscal year, the Mary Petro Foundation distributed just over $114,000 worth of services," said Rick Rios, Chairman of the SouthShore Council. "We are looking at probab- ly doubling that amount this year including a $50,000 grant given to Feeding Tampa Bay to address nutritional wellness in the SouthShore area and here in Sun City Center.
"This is an area we think we can have a very profound effect on."
Any resident wishing to apply for assistance from the Mary Petro Foundation can go to the United Community Church at 1501 LaJolla Avenue of Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. or call (813) 634-8306 for more information.
Other alternatives for gaining assistance with nutritional wellness can be found in several local venues.
• Metropolitan Ministries provides a hot and healthy lunch every Wednesday between 11:30 and 12:30 at the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church on East Del Webb in SCC. For reservations, call the church at (813) 634-1252.
• Meals On Wheels can provide a nutritious meal for only $6 delivered right to your door. All this requires is a call to Samaritan Services which coordinates the service for the meal delivery system at (813) 238-8410.
• Local food pantries such as Our Lady's Pantry on U.S. 301 in Wimauma offer nutritious fruits, vegetables and some source of protein to help those with insufficient money for groceries. Anita and Tom Bullaro welcome seniors to the pantry every Saturday between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m.
With nonprofits addressing the issue of food insecurity, community members who are struggling with maintaining sustenance don't have to watch their dream turn into a nightmare.
"Probably the hardest part of nutritional wellness is providing a service for someone who doesn't want anyone to know they have a problem," Rios said. "If someone doesn't identify at some point that there is a need, then we have no way of helping them."
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]