It was a sunny day, and the seniors at the Clinton Rose Senior Center were in a vibrant mood. At 10:30 a.m., Susan Melson closed her crossword puzzle book and started walking outside.

“I’m going to buy some food in the Mobile Market. This is my first time,” Melson said.

A huge trunk parked outside. On the side, it said “Pick n Save Fresh Pick Mobile Market. Bringing Fresh Food to Communities throughout Milwaukee.” Two staff members got off the truck and put out two boards saying “25 percent off on Ham and Turkey.” Melson waited in the line with other seniors to enter the market.

Next to the mobile market truck was another huge truck with several loads of boxes. The “Stock box” labels were put on the boxes. Some seniors in wheelchairs were waiting to get a box.

Across Riverside Park, the Clinton Rose Senior Center is located on Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Most of the seniors there are African-American, and are living in low-income communities. Melson is one of them. She is 62 years old and lives with her daughter on the North Side, which is known as low-income community and a food desert.

Seniors in poverty

Seniors living in low-income communities or in neighborhoods that don’t have much access to fresh grocery stores are facing a tough situation when it comes to their food. In a map of Milwaukee from United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 45 percent of households in the central city don’t have vehicles and live more than half a mile from a supermarket.

Statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services in 2014 show there are 111,948 people in Milwaukee over 65 years old. Among them, 11,430 people are living in poverty; 39,991 people are living alone. For low-income seniors, transportation is also a big issue for them.

The Stockbox program

To help change the situation, the Hunger Task Force, Pick ‘n Save and Milwaukee County opened the Mobile Market. The truck travels throughout the neighborhoods and communities that have limited access to fresh and healthy foods.

“The price in the Mobile Market is lower than what you will find in stores. The federal grant is a big help,” said Geoff Smeja, a driver and the coordinator of the Mobile Market truck.

This year in June, the Hunger Task Force received a $100,000 federal Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Stockbox is a program called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which is administered by the Hunger Task Force. Each month, nearly 9,000 boxes of supplementary food are delivered to low-income seniors who are older than 65.

“The Stockbox is a local program, it’s free to low-income seniors. We offer different types of food in the boxes,” said Rick Lewandowski, program director of Hunger Task Force.

“We have a dining program here which provides seniors with healthy and fresh lunches every day,” Henrietta Allen said while she was helping seniors to sign up for the Stockbox. Allen is the director of the Clinton Rose Senior Center.

Market on a truck

Stepping up to the truck, the mobile market was filled by seniors holding shopping baskets. Vegetables were put on the right-side shelves; fruits were put on the left. Two large coolers were on the ground with hams and turkeys inside. There were also freezers with yogurt, juice, milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and meat. The price was cheaper than in the store; the greens were less than one dollar, and a dozen eggs only cost $0.74.

“I like greens and fruits,” Melson said when she was busy picking some mustard greens, “I would go to the grocery store twice a month, but that’s not enough for to get everything I need.”

When heading to the cashier, a sign on the wall saying “NO CASH. Debit, Credit, or EBT only.” Some seniors were using a green card to pay the bill.

“It’s the EBT card, the government will put money in it,” Smeja said.

The EBT card is known for Electronic Benefits Transfer Card, which is issued by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The EBT card is used for making purchases and groceries in stores like Pick ‘n Save.

After checking out, Melson looked satisfied.

“I bought some greens and fruits, and I got cheese and bacon.” Melson said while opening the plastic bag.

Nutrition for seniors

It was noon, and the dining room was busy. A menu board at the entrance of the dining room announced today’s lunch: Italian Meatballs/Sauce w/ Parmesan Cheese, Spaghetti Noodles, Italian Vegetable Blend, Mixed Greens, Italian Dressing, Vienna Bread, and Fresh Pear.

“I eat lunch here every day,” Anthony Cistrunk said from his wheelchair. “They have something better than I have at home.”

Cistrunk is 75 years old, and he lives three blocks away from the Clinton Rose Senior Center.

“I come here to have some social time, and to get some fresh food,” Cistrunk said.

Seniors who are living in low-income communities are also facing nutrition problems. According to the report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.2 million seniors who were 65 years and older lived below the poverty line in 2015.  Nearly 3 million seniors experienced food insecurity.

“The seniors definitely need three meals a day to get enough nutrition,” said Judy Mayer, a licensed nutritionist. “Some of the seniors I had helped didn’t eat breakfast, which is the important meal of the day.”

From food desert to food access

The situation in food deserts is changing. Several food markets have been built for residents living in food desert area. The Fondy Farmers Market is known for benefitting the low-income people on the north side, as well.

“We work with family farms to make sure the food is fresh and is from local farms,” said Meg Kilkenny, who is program coalition coordinator for the Fondy Farmers Market.

Kilkenny said the use of the term “food desert” should be reduced.

“The situation is improving. We have the Fondy Farmers Market on the north side, and we have a farm in Port Washington. At least the north side is not a food desert,” Kilkenny said.

The Hunger Task Force’s Sherrie Tussler on the evolution of food deserts:

“It’s hard to say which area in Milwaukee is a food desert, but there are still places people don’t have access to grocery stores; and this is what we want to help,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force.