Through Volunteerism, NYC Gives Growing Aging Population New Purpose

Darrell Robinson is a chef by trade and former substance abuse counselor, who in retirement has married these two passions to improve his community in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “I feed and enlighten and educate,” says Robinson, who is a volunteer community chef with the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), a nonprofit that relieves local food insecurity by pairing their homegrown garden and farmers market with consumer education.

At MARP, Robinson takes on a variety of roles: gardener, educator, innovator and leader. “I hope that I am having an impact on people’s lives at the most basic of levels: hand to mouth. When people talk about the urban inner city struggle, for a lot of us it’s just about getting a decent meal on the table.”

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For Robinson, like many older adults who are committed to food justice, life after 60 isn’t idle; it’s a period of advocacy and activism. For decades, older adults have moved the community garden movement forward on a local and as needed basis.

“In the late ‘90s, it was older adults who started growing [their own] food because there weren’t healthy options available in their communities and they had time to garden,” says Terry Kaelber, the Project Director for Healthy Communities through Healthy Food. Community gardens continue to populate corners of the city, and more recently, an increase of farmers markets across the boroughs have slightly ameliorated food insecurity.

The cultural shift now, Kaelber says, is that society as a whole is beginning to recognize older adults as an untapped resource to drive this change. “There is starting to be some real movement in trying to change how all of us see old age. [Our] view that the skills and experience and energy of older adults—something that our society would actually want to utilize—is a relatively new phenomenon,” he says.

With the baby boomer generation growing older, the city is ballooning with people who are 65 and older. Approximately 1 million – or 1 out of every 6 New Yorkers – is above the age of 65 and this number is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2030. With this line of sight, nonprofit and government programs are beginning to cater to this active aging population, who consider their older years to be a period of opening – not closing – new chapters in their lives.

The Community Experience Partnership (CEP) is one such example. CEP is a national coalition of 40 community foundations that provides funding to local nonprofits who work with older adults on relevant community issues. In NYC, the New York Community Trust and United Neighborhood Houses have partnered with six nonprofits dedicated to mitigating hunger in food deserts across the city by empowering older adults to become involved.

The result is a mutually beneficial relationship between nonprofits, who have the infrastructure to implement impactful programs yet lack manpower and community insight, and older adults, who are passionate about giving back to their communities yet lack the outlet for their energy and ideas.

At Isabella Geriatric Center, a nonprofit partner, senior volunteers helped spearhead their YUM Food Program, a weekly market that brings fresh produce from Hunts Point in the Bronx to their largely low-income and elderly consumer base in Washington Heights.

The market alleviates the pressure for local families to travel to other neighborhoods for affordable food options while giving seniors ownership over the change they’re effecting in their neighborhood.

“The volunteers come in the morning to display the food and set up the market, and they take on all kinds of leadership roles,” says Carol Ban, Director of the “Aging in Place” programs at Isabella. “Our older adults do marketing in the community and public speaking in other senior centers and health fairs.”

Concurrent to the uptick of nonprofit attention paid to the aging population, the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) has also pioneered its own agenda for addressing their specific needs. They operate a “Health Promotion Services Unit”, in which older adult volunteers lead specific health-based programs for their peers, such as wellness and health literacy classes.

“Just by the fact that the Department for the Aging wants to do work in this area suggests this is beginning to gain some real traction,” Kaelber says.

Now that there is an initial interest for these programs amongst benefactors and beneficiaries, the challenge remains to ensure they continue through sustained funding and active program participation.