Ana Cornejo wears her 77 years well. Her brunette hair is neatly arranged and her eyes shine with kindness as she speaks. This is not the face that comes to mind for most people when they think of Toronto's hungry. But Ana is a part of an increasing number of seniors who struggle to make ends meet each month. Dependent on fixed incomes, these seniors often have to make difficult choices between paying the rent and keeping the lights on or buying enough food to eat.
In 2015, Ontario saw a 35% jump in the number of senior citizens visiting food banks. It's a trend Second Harvest sees daily on its delivery routes. Last year, 70% of Second Harvest's agency partners noted that they serve seniors. Some agency partners, like Loyola Arrupe Centre for Seniors (LACS), are built specifically around servicing the needs of this growing and vulnerable population.
Since January of 2015, LACS has been receiving weekly fresh food donations from Second Harvest, helping to ease grocery expenses for seniors on fixed incomes. Located on the main floor of a west-end Toronto Community Housing (TCH) complex, the centre offers a variety of accessible and affordable programs to people 55 and over, though most of the clientele, according to Executive Director Sandra Cardillo, are over 70."I remember the day vividly," says Sandra, reflecting on the very first delivery Second Harvest made to LACS.
"It was amazing to see all this food," says 70-year old Molly Hamil, a TCH resident and member of LACS. "We all live on fixed incomes so whatever we get in the food program is very helpful."
Molly pauses to take a sip of juice from her Styrofoam cup. "I have friends living here who have no money for groceries after paying rent and all their other bills. We need the nutrients from healthy foods while we're aging, and many people just can't afford it."
Molly's lament is echoed across the nation. According to a 2014 report from Statistics Canada, over 600,000 Canadian seniors live in poverty, a figure compounded by barriers that emerge with old age, such as mobility and health challenges. With just two staff members, and over 500 people accessing its programs, LACS feels the weight of an aging population.
"Given the diversity of the population we work with and the hardships I hear about on a daily basis -- abuse, poverty, hunger, isolation, tragedy, you name it -- if I can put a smile on someone's face each day, I've met my minimum," says Sandra. "We spend a lot of time knocking on doors. Those few minutes of interaction may be the only human contact some of these seniors have all day."
Aiming to help seniors socialize, many of whom face severe isolation, LACS offers a variety of programs in addition to its community food program including yoga, gardening, computer classes, intergenerational programming and cooking classes.
"Sometimes you feel lonely, and accessing these programs helps with that," says 97 year-old Floris Griffith. Since moving to the building in 1992, Floris has participated in yoga, smocking, embroidery, knitting and more recently, the community food program. "You're lively here. You feel at home," says Floris, "you're not left alone."
The food program urges many seniors to get out of their house and join peers in the LACS lobby, where they can socialize while waiting for food packages. It is a lively scene - a flurry of activity and conversation, a meeting place lined with strollers and walkers.
Once the food arrives, Sandra and a team of volunteers, many of whom are TCH residents and LACS members, take an inventory and organize the delivery by product before preparing packages for the 50 -- 70 people who access the program each week. On a good delivery week, bags have anywhere between 10 and 15 food items.
"There are people here who will never admit to their level of poverty, but they're the ones who are here, first in line," says Sandra. In the summer, the program opens its doors and spills into the market square, drawing a larger crowd. Beneath the warm summer sky, people gather to pick up their food, chat with one another and enjoy the outdoors. "People really cherish the food Second Harvest brings. So many people are hungry. Why would we ever throw that food in the garbage?" asks Molly. "The seniors in this country are suffering. Transportation for seniors is an issue; motivation among seniors is an issue. Having healthy food really helps."
Floris says her favorite things to receive from Second Harvest are the cauliflower and broccoli. "I am thankful every day for these healthy foods. It helps a great lot," says Floris, her Guyanese accent still present after 35 years in Canada.
When asked whether all that cauliflower and broccoli has helped her live so long, Floris erupts into a fit of laughter that fills the room so fast you have no choice but to laugh along with her. "In our lives, we have to be true and we have to be kind. We have to do the best we can to help people, no matter who the person is. This will bring us all great joy. It will help us stay young and live long," says Floris.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook