Program aims to tackle food insecurity in small towns

NWPB Horizontal Logo
Murrow College of Communication at WSU

Program aims to tackle food insecurity in small towns

By Allison Martinez and Annie Hager


COLFAX, Wash. – There were times Barbra Smith thought her fight for food may leave her without a place to live.

If it wasn’t for the services provided by a local nonprofit, Smith wouldn’t be able to pay her bills, she said.

“I’d probably be homeless,” said 72-year-old Smith, a local citizen born and raised in Colfax.

Whitman County is the most food insecure county in Washington State, and nearly 9,000 residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to the most recent publication of Feeding America, a national nonprofit network of food banks. Though many of those students are students at Washington State University, the COA has seen a dramatic increase in need among the rural elderly.

Eight years ago, the nonprofit served about 2,100 individuals, but now that number has jumped to up to 3,800 each month, said Paige Collins, executive director of the the Council on Aging and Human Services, a private nonprofit that provides food and transportation.

Rising food prices coupled with the end of pandemic-era assistance have disproportionately hit many elderly people. Older adults who qualify for minimum benefit from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – or SNAP – saw their monthly support fall from $281 per month down to $23 a month in March, according to federal officials.

Older adults living with food insecurity are more likely to malnutrition, depression, and even cognitive declines, according to a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition.

Jerry Lineweaver, a senior who has lived in Colfax all his life, enjoys a nice meal as well as the chance to meet others, he said.

“I’m pretty active still for my age,” Lineweaver said. “I’m retired, so you run out of things to do after a while.”

Lineweaver also helps support the COA by volunteering and driving the nonprofits vans to deliver groceries to people who are unable to drive, he said.

The COA doesn’t just help the handicapped and senior citizens, they get people from all walks of life, he said.

Without these organizations, the Colfax community would face food insecurity on a larger scale, he said.

“There would be more hunger, and less people meeting other people,” Lineweaver said.

Smith is able to get hot, homemade meals and direct access to transportation assistance through the COA, she said.

Her surgery on both knees last year left her unable to be mobile and drive, Smith said.

“[The COA] has helped me with rides to doctor’s appointments, when I couldn’t drive,” Smith said.

Smith started going to the food bank, bringing them her grocery lists and the COA dropped off her food when she was recovering, she said. After her experience getting to know the community at the food bank, Smith encourages others to not be ashamed for not having enough food or money to purchase their daily needs.

“You might as well come out and use it,” she said.

The Council on Aging started in Whitman County in 1978, according to Collins. It all began when they took a few seniors shopping, ultimately blossoming into senior meals together, she said.

The COA has two sides of their business, both nutrition and transportation services, Collins said.

They have “Meals on Wheels” for both Pullman and Colfax as well as eight senior meal locations in all of Whitman County, she said.

The nonprofit’s COAST vans and buses also help drive people in five counties in Washington and four counties in Idaho, she said.

In Idaho they can serve people who are 65 years and older, as well as those who are disabled.

In Washington they are able to serve anybody, and any age, she said.

The COA’s mission is to allow their seniors to live at home and age in place for as long as possible, Collins said.

Whether it’s delivering meals to their homes or giving them rides to doctor’s appointments, the COA is there to help support the seniors with whatever they need, she said.

Their nutrition services are mostly funded by the Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, which is how they get all the food to provide hot meals, Collins said.

Each week the same 20 or 30 people attend the group senior meals, and they all keep an eye on each other, she said.

If someone doesn’t show up to a meal that is usually there, then the COA is able to call and do a welfare check on them, she said.

Serving in rural communities is challenging, and access to transportation is one of the biggest issues Collins sees, she said.

“It’s expensive for us to run our big truck to take food out to other pantries.

We do it once a month, and that’s it right now,” she said. “It’s very expensive, it’s a lot of miles and it’s two full days.”

Expense still doesn’t stop the COA from feeding those in further more rural areas, she said. COAST drivers will step in and help deliver food in places like Tekoa, Garfield and Oaksdale. Collins loves helping others and giving back to those who need food and are hungry, she said.

“I love to bring [families] down here when it’s closed, and just load them up with food because that is so much fun,” she said. “It’s not my food, it’s their food.”

Collins’ passion for volunteering and helping others began 18 years ago when she went to her first ever food bank in Bellevue, she said.

From then she became the manager of that food bank, and continued on with volunteering ever since.



Explore More Murrow News Stories

Note: Murrow News is produced by students of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. Northwest Public Broadcasting proudly supports the work produced by these young journalists. 

If you have any issues/concerns please feel free to reach out to Instructor, Kanale Rhoden or Department Chair, Ben Shors.

©2019 Washington State University Board of Regents – Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.