Courtesy Marcus Saylor
“Everything goes up except our pension cheques.”
This is what Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Arnold Boyer has been hearing from community elders.
Wanting to learn more, Boyer paid a visit to the Kateri Food Basket, where he learned elders make up a third of the food bank’s clientele.
“That awakened it for me,” he said. “Like, holy shit, these people are forgotten.”
In a community that agrees on the need to respect its elders, older Kahnawa’kehró:non – especially those on fixed incomes who lack family support – are particularly vulnerable to the increased cost of living and income stagnation affecting wide swaths of the population.
While existing initiatives strive to assist elders who have trouble accessing enough nutritious food, these resources are strained, barely able to keep up with demand.
Boyer, whose portfolios include community social affairs, is still in the early stages of exploring the issue, but he noted his colleagues have already expressed encouragement.
The MCK recently released a list of three priorities for the remainder of Council’s term, which included social support and wellbeing, suggesting the time may be right for a new food security program targeting community elders.
“This is the whole reason why we’re doing all these commercial endeavours and business partnerships, so we can have own-source revenue to put behind initiatives that are important to the community,” said grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer.
“Our elders are so important to us, so creating programs that will assist them will definitely be something that we’re working toward in the last little while,” she said.
Alexis Shackleton, director of the MCK’s Client-Based Services, worries for elders who do not have a private pension and don’t necessarily have children or extended family that can help them.
“Those are the people most at risk,” she said.
This aligns with what Kateri Food Basket coordinator Cory Rice has heard from elderly clients who are vocal about what they’re experiencing.
“A lot of them, if they’re on pension or whatever … their pension is just enough to pay their utilities and whatever else they need, and by the time they’re finished with that, they’re left with nothing or almost nothing to buy groceries,” he said.
With help from other organizations, the food basket was making deliveries weekly at one point during the pandemic, but this is not feasible in the longterm given budgetary constraints.
The food basket currently delivers one box of food per month to clients. These are typically filled with up to $100-150 worth of non-perishable items.
Rice is looking into including other staples and even fresh produce, but it is difficult for the organization to afford it. To complicate matters further, many community elders have specific dietary requirements.
“We’re not going to give them a box of Froot Loops as the cereal, and they’re an elder with diabetes,” said Rice.
“To eat healthy, everybody knows it’s more expensive, so a lot of the stuff we try to get – if we go and buy a pack of noodles at the store and it’s 99 cents, it’s on sale, we’re happy,” he said. “Try to buy a pack of noodles that are gluten-free for 99 cents. You’re never going to get that.”
In addition to referrals from organizations, many elders are introduced to the food basket by homecare nurses.
“Maybe 50 percent of the time we get new sign-ups, it’s the home care nurse that will call and say, ‘You know, I work with this individual, I was cleaning up or whatever, I put stuff in their cupboard, and there’s barely anything and not much in their fridge,’” said Rice.
About 25 of Kateri Food Basket’s approximately 70 clients are elderly, according to Rice.
Another critical lifeline for elders is Meals on Wheels, run by Home and Community Care Services at the Turtle Bay Elders’ Lodge. However, it too is limited in what it can provide and to whom.
“We have seen a drastic increase in the number of people receiving Meals on Wheels now,” said Mike Horne, manager of Home and Community Care Services.
About 45 meals a day are prepared for community elders and others, such as those with mobility issues – 50 percent more than three years ago.
Yet this represents only a small fraction of Kahnawake’s growing number of elders, according to Horne.
“It’s unrealistic to expect that Home and Community Care and Turtle Bay Elders’ Lodge will be able to cook meals for all of our elderly population,” he said.
The lodge can handle preparing about 50 meals maximum for the program in its current facility, with 58 being the most it has ever coped with in one day. In an effort to boost capacity, it is exploring a partnership with the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre, which has a kitchen in its new expansion.
However, to ensure supply can meet demand, clients must receive a referral from a case manager to access the service.
“It’s not a matter of someone wanting a meal; it has to be an identified need,” said Horne.
If an elder has family that can pitch in instead, that individual is not eligible to receive Meals on Wheels.
“As much as possible, we try and engage family and empower them to take on this responsibility,” said Horne. He believes the availability of family helps ensure people do not fall through the cracks.
Nevertheless, he recognizes the importance of food security for elders and others in Kahnawake.
“It’s a very important need in the community because of the fact that nutrition plays a very important part in overall health,” he said.
“It’s very helpful that it’s four dollars a meal, and they deliver,” said Debra-Ann McComber, 64, a Meals on Wheels recipient. “It’s very helpful because I get a main meal plus I get dessert and a soup, so that really helps the budget.”
Meals on Wheels delivers five meals a week.
McComber, who still works as a bookkeeper, gets the rest of her groceries delivered. She has had to take great care to avoid COVID-19 due to receiving chemotherapy, so the Meals on Wheels program greatly eases her financial burden, especially given an increasing cost of living.
Not only are groceries getting more expensive, but McComber said her budget will be impacted when Hydro Quebec soon increases the cost of electricity by 2.6 percent – a figure based on inflation.
“(Meals on Wheels) is very important, especially for those who have limited mobility,” said McComber. “They don’t have to cook, they don’t have to plan, they eat it right away, or they end up heating it up in the microwave. So it’s very helpful in many ways, financially and even physically.”
In addition to Meals on Wheels, Home and Community Care Services takes a handful of elders to do their grocery shopping, but again, only as a last resort for those it deems to be in serious need of assistance.
“Our services are stretched thin, and this is where as a community people can pitch in too,” said Horne.
He emphasized the importance of people helping family members in need by preparing a meal for them and even reaching out to friends and neighbours to see if they need assistance.
“That helps us in terms of our service and meeting our overall goal of meeting the needs of our elderly or vulnerable population,” he said.
In the meantime, Boyer continues to search for elders from whom he might learn more about the issue of elder food insecurity in Kahnawake and what kinds of things can be implemented to address it.
“I’m sure something has to be done,” said Boyer. “Our people are in need.”
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.