Older Detroiters get together, eat healthy thanks to Senior Market Days

The poor health of Detroit seniors is a public health crisis. Thirty-nine percent report having three or more chronic illnesses, including diabetes. The prevalence of diabetes (23 percent) and hypertension (64 percent) is greater than national norms. African Americans (82.7 percent of Detroit's population is African American) are at particularly high risk for Type 2 diabetes.
While those are grim statistics, the good news is that older adults with pre-diabetes can prevent or delay the development of Type 2 diabetes by up to 58 percent with lifestyle adjustments, including changing dietary habits.
Senior Market Days is a new program that strives to encourage healthy diet change among Detroit seniors who are at risk of chronic illnesses. It addresses both the poor health conditions of Detroit seniors and their lack of transportation by busing them weekly from 10 different senior sites to local farmer' markets, including Eastern Market, Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market, and Wayne State University's Wednesday Farmers Market.
The program provides every participating senior $10 in "senior bucks" each week to spend on fresh Michigan produce.
At the market, seniors shop and participate in special programming such as cooking demonstrations using food from the market, yoga classes, and blood pressure checks; they also socialize with their peers, market vendors, and other shoppers.
The purpose of the program is for seniors to build a habit of regularly visiting the markets in order to eat better -- stocking their kitchens with healthier items like greens, raspberries, broccoli, and zucchini.

"We know that increased fruit and vegetable consumption positively affects health," says Rachelle Bonelli, vice president of programs at Gleaners Community Food Bank, the lead organization for the Senior Market Days program. "Hopefully, this behavior will be sustained over the winter months by shopping for more produce at their local markets if they can and by participating in programs like Fresh Food Share [low-priced produce purchase program]."
Motivating seniors to eat healthier has the potential to impact public health. Chronic illness among Detroit seniors is high (89 percent), and diabetes is among the top ten reasons for hospitalization in the city. Additionally, older African Americans in Detroit suffer from disproportionate rates of disease and premature death, often due to conditions that can be prevented through better health and nutrition management.
But affordability can be a challenge. Detroit has the third highest average annual household expenditures for food of 18 U.S. metropolitan areas. For seniors living on a fixed income, food budgeting is difficult.
The Senior Market Days program, with its senior bucks, helps with food budgeting while keeping seniors nourished. 85 percent of the seniors surveyed about last year's program said they were attracted by the $10 vouchers.
Senior Market Days also addresses the issue of food access -- how seniors find and access affordable quality produce in their neighborhoods.
What is available may not be easy to obtain. A quarter of Detroit seniors lack access to an automobile; the public bus system and its schedule can be spotty or inconvenient for seniors, and without a car, they are challenged to carry purchases back to their homes.
Ila Tucker shops at Eastern Market with the help of Senior Market Days."It's more of a challenge for our seniors in Detroit than most other urban locations," says Pat Baldwin, a director at Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation, an organization that works to meet the needs and improve the quality of life of older adults. "In Detroit, we don't have chain stores. Well, yes, Meijer, but it's on the outside edge of the city, right at the end of the bus line. It's a hike from the bus stop over to Meijer."
Laurie Washington, 66, a volunteer who organizes sign-up for Senior Market Days at Metropolitan Community Tabernacle on the east side, says that there are market options for seniors living in the area around her church.
"There is Del Point Food Center that has produce, but sometimes not the freshest quality, and there's just so far you can walk in this heat. Most of the time, seniors go to Eight Mile and Gratiot, but they need to have a car or a relative or a friend to drive them."
Willie Smith, 74, who lives in the Himelhoch Apartments in downtown Detroit, takes the bus to get her meats from Gratiot Central Market. Her situation is similar to many other seniors with disabilities.
"It's not easy to get there. I sometimes wait three hours to get back to my house, and it's only two miles away," says Smith. "By the time they [the bus] get to me, they already have two [people with disabilities] on and they can only take two. You're supposed to be able to call to get a ride, but it never happens."
Vazilyn Poinsetta gives a cooking demonstration as a part of Senior Market Days.Providing transportation to the farmers markets removes the transportation barriers to healthy eating that some Detroit seniors face. It also creates a risk-free opportunity to try new foods, add more variety to meals, and purchase single-serving amounts.
"Acceptability and appropriateness is an issue. Oftentimes, seniors are cooking for one or two, and purchasing larger quantities of perishable foods may not work well for them," says Bonelli. "They may also have dietary or physical issues that they need to be mindful of."
Chelsea Neblett, the manager of the Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market, says that although seniors in the Grandmont Rosedale communities live near a full service grocery store (Metro Foodland) that offers healthy eating choices for residents, participating in Senior Market Days is well worth the effort.
"The most important benefit is being able to provide seniors, many of whom are transit dependent, access to fresh and healthy food," says Neblett. "An added bonus is the sense of community that our market creates for the seniors and all our shoppers."
Seniors surveyed in last year's program identified socialization as one of the reasons they enjoyed the program and returned to the market often.
Baldwin tells the story of a senior who participated in the pilot program last year. She was picked up weekly from the Village of Brush Park Manor Paradise Valley, a senior housing complex, and transported with other residents to Eastern Market on Tuesdays. She had terminal cancer, but she participated in the program up to when she died.
"She loved it. She went right to the end, going to market on Tuesday and died the next day, Wednesday," says Baldwin. "It didn't matter at that point if she ate all candy bars, but she went for the social interaction. They [the food and social aspects] are equally important."

Aging Together is a summer-long project between MLive DetroitWDET 101.9FM Detroit and Model D Media that explores the issues of older adults in Detroit, Southeast Michigan and the state.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and the editor of Michigan Nightlight, an online source of solutions, news and inspiration for those who are working to positively impact the lives of Michigan kids.

All photos courtesy of Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.
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Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.