Gary Linker: What the Pandemic Brought Home To Me 

As a fairly typical baby boomer who grew up in a secular Jewish home in the Midwest, I learned about social justice and the need to give back at a fairly young age.  As a teenager I attended many conferences on civil rights and became a very ardent supporter of those causes.  But another issue nagged at me from a young age.  It was hunger.  As an idealistic young person of the 60’s I could not reconcile how the United States alone could feed the world and yet hunger pervaded not only African countries but sectors of American society as well.

The result of that early awareness has guided my tzedekah efforts throughout my life.  Maybe this is influenced too because I hate to feel hungry myself and thus don’t wish it on anyone else.  I remember the pain I felt when I learned that my own cousins often ended the month short of money to buy food when they were at college.  Of course they had too much pride to ask my family for help but I thought if they were food insecure there must be even more people who face this problem on a daily basis.

I tell you all of this because the pandemic in an interesting way brought this problem front and center to me in my professional life.  Some of you may know that I run a small non-profit, the Center for Successful Aging, that serves the needs of seniors in our community.  In mid-March a local philanthropist called me and with great foresight told me of his concern that with the stay at home orders low income seniors would soon be hard hit and that he wanted to help some local organizations deal with the pending food problems facing seniors in our county.  I thanked him for his concern but referred him to a larger organization since I knew ours would not be able to undertake such a large geographic task.

After he approached the Family Service Agency, its director called and asked me if my group would run the program from Santa Barbara to Goleta.  I gladly accepted and for the past 6 months we have offered two programs; one offering groceries for people who can prepare their own meals and the other for more debilitated individuals who can’t prepare food.  We received a government grant to offer the latter group a hot meal program and when its funder asked me how many people I’d like to serve I said, “Well, there are probably 50-60 people who are really desperate but why don’t we start with 100.”  She secured the federal funding and we publicized the program to all the low income people and agencies I knew.  To my shock we got 150 calls within the first 3 days.  “Wow”, I said to myself, I had no idea that many people were food insecure.

After raising some local funds and screening all of the applicants, we were able to offer a 5 day a week hot meal program to 115 seniors and serve the others in the grocery program.  After doing some additional research I have learned that the reality is that in our wealthy enclave there is an underbelly of great poverty where over 25% of seniors in our county live.  Too many don’t even have the funds to purchase food and others are physically unable to make food.  Should seniors who lived and served our community throughout their lives and now live alone, are blind, suffer so much pain they can’t stand or don’t have the cognitive ability to cook a meal be relegated to eating something out of a can?

The pandemic has brought home to me the stark reality that food insecurity is a huge issue among seniors.  I have joined a group that is bringing this issue to government, foundations and other philanthropists for all of us to solve.  It was hidden before the pandemic and is now a major social issue that I feel compelled to respond to.  I hope as this issue rises to the surface in the media that you will decide to add your voice in support of this important effort.

Gary Linker has been an active member of CBB for many years. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology and has worked in the education and nonprofit field for many years.