Two Saturdays ago, Allene Doyle lined up at Bihl Haus Arts, a community nonprofit organization, to receive her weekend free food supplement donated by Whole Foods Market. The delivery that was typically 10 bins had dwindled to two half-full bins, with just four boxes of cookies, one loaf of bread, two dozen eggs, and a few prepackaged meals.

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“It wasn’t hardly anything,” Doyle said. As a 65-year-old who lives on a fixed income at The Sorento, a senior affordable apartment complex formerly known as The Primrose, Doyle relies on the weekend supplementary food, particularly fresh fruits, and vegetables, to stay healthy and support her heart condition. Still, she emphasized that she appreciates anything the food program can offer, and said her fellow residents were generous in sharing what was available.

Doyle and 25 to 50 other residents of The Sorento depend on the donated fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, bread, meats, and prepared meal packages, to help bridge the two-day gap the City of San Antonio’s weekday Senior Nutrition Program doesn’t cover.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit two weeks ago, San Antonians began hoarding groceries and household supplies, emptying store shelves faster than management could replace the stock. This past Saturday, there wasn’t enough food for Bihl Haus to distribute.

Sorento resident Allene Doyle looks through the Bihl House Arts window to find an empty room on Saturday where supplemental free food is typically distributed. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Whole Foods is supplying all it can, said Kellen McIntyre, Bihl Haus executive director. Embedded in its community, McIntyre noticed that many residents of The Sorento often went hungry on weekends. She started the supplemental program in late 2014 to respond to the need.

“One of the things that’s important is for people to understand what the hoarding does,” McIntyre said of the dwindling resources. ”It’s mind-blowing that people who can afford food are going out and raking the shelves down to the metal … when it isn’t necessary.” Necessities like toilet paper and household cleaning products are not supplied by The Sorento, Doyle said, and are not part of the Bihl Haus program. However her daughter, who lives on the Northwest Side, was able to go grocery shopping to help supply Doyle’s immediate needs.

Life on the Edge

McIntyre observed that even before the coronavirus outbreak, many Sorento residents lived “right on the edge,” barely able to support themselves, even in danger of eviction if unable to meet their monthly expenses.

The maximum allowable household annual income for a single resident at The Sorento is $28,080 per year, well above the federal poverty line of $12,261 for a person age 65 or over. Apartments there cost $757-$906 per month, with 78 residents currently holding San Antonio Housing Authority monthly vouchers to subsidize rent.

Meals on Wheels San Antonio supplements the Senior Nutrition Program but is normally focused on serving “the neediest of the needy,” said CEO Vinsen Faris. Only 10 Sorento residents among 248 apartments meet standard eligibility requirements for daily food from Meals on Wheels, which is limited to those who are immobile or can’t cook for themselves. Before the pandemic, only three residents were eligible for weekend meals, Faris said.

But the pandemic has threatened the viability of the Bihl Haus weekend food program, essential to the health and well-being of the residents, McIntyre said. “In peak times, we’d get meat and beef and chicken and lots of veggies and some canned goods and lots of dairy,” she said, “and that’s probably not going to be the case for a while.”

On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas would receive a $16.2 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Community Living to help provide meals for older adults.

With or without that funding, Faris said due to generous community donations Meals on Wheels would step in next Friday with an emergency stopgap measure to deliver two-day cold food packs to the Sorento residents normally served by Bihl Haus. The deliveries will go on indefinitely, he said, until the crisis subsides and Whole Foods can return to regular donations.

A common term for the nutritional and economic jeopardy many senior citizens face is “food insecurity,” but Faris prefers a more direct term.

“If somebody’s hungry, they’re hungry; if somebody’s malnourished, they’re malnourished,” he said. “Let’s call it what it is.”

According to fact sheets published by Meals on Wheels America, 7.1 million U.S. seniors live under the poverty threshold, with a weekly income of $234 or less that has to stretch to cover housing, utilities, and out-of-pocket medical expenses. Though Social Security income varies widely depending on how much a person earned during their working days, U.S. News & World Report figures the average Social Security benefit as $1,503 per month, or roughly $375 weekly, which amounts to less than $20,000 per year.

Beyond those figures, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 42,536 seniors age 55 and over in the San Antonio and New Braunfels area live below the poverty threshold of $13,016 in annual income for individuals.

“We have a huge senior population here that’s growing, and the needs are growing substantially,” Faris said. “Living at or below the poverty line is tough, and malnutrition is out there and people don’t like to talk about it.”

A ‘More Than a Meal’ Model

Sometimes, hunger is emotional, too, with seniors feeling cut off from others even before worries about contracting coronavirus changed the landscape of daily living. In fact, the national Meals on Wheels organization blames social isolation as a primary cause of chronic health conditions among the elderly.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the Bihl Haus Arts GO! Arts education program for seniors age 60 and over served 400 residents weekly at 17 senior centers throughout the city. The program for people McIntyre calls “goldens” is meant to feed the mind and spirit, offering regular opportunities to socialize through weekly classes in painting, drawing, creative writing, and yoga classes, all taught by professionals.

Social distancing has meant that Bihl Haus is shifting its classes online in hopes of continuing to offer creative outlets to the population it serves, McIntyre said. For now, classes are on YouTube, with the possibility of moving to the Zoom meeting platform for live classes. McIntyre estimated half of the students currently enrolled in classes can access the internet and 90 percent have cellphones to text images of current work to their teachers for feedback.

Though her painting class has been postponed, Doyle said she continues to paint at home. “I miss being around all the people,” she said. “I miss my artist friends.”

Allene Doyle paints with oils on her apartment porch at the Sorento. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Doyle first learned of the painting classes from fellow Sorento resident Linda Manson. As a new resident seven years ago, Doyle had been feeling the weight of grief from the loss of her sister, father, and mother over a four-year period, but was too busy with work to attend classes.

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Manson said the GO! Arts programming offered creative outlets to help her get out of a rut of loneliness and lack of occupation, and she made efforts to spread the word to others who lived in the complex.

“[Linda] would tell me, go to the art class, go to the art class!” Doyle said, “and I finally went. And I loved it. … Art helped me to concentrate on something.”

Manson emphasized that Bihl Haus was a primary reason she first chose The Sorento, with opportunities to socialize, learn new skills, and view its art exhibitions.

“If your arts community is healthy, your local community is healthy,” said McIntyre. “If your arts community is sick, your local community is sick. It’s just real cut and dry.”

Bihl Haus receives annual City funding, in addition to contributions from other donors including a $25,000 operational support grant from the San Antonio Area Foundation. The money goes to support both the arts programming on which Bihl Haus is based, and the informal supplemental food program.

The Area Foundation also has announced an emergency COVID-19 Response Fund, with grants up to $50,000 to help nonprofit community organizations with additional operational support during the crisis.

Food + Art = Public Health

McIntyre sees the GO! Arts program and weekend food supplements as similar factors on the spectrum of overall well-being for San Antonio’s low-income elderly residents. A 2019 ArtPlace study backs up her assertion.

The study, one component of a larger initiative called Creating Healthy Communities: Arts + Public Health in America, sees arts and culture as intrinsic to public health and encourages collaboration between agencies “at the intersections of art and culture, public health, and community development.”

The focus of the study is on what it identifies as five urgent public health issues: collective trauma, racism, mental health, social exclusion and isolation, and chronic disease.

Community-focused arts and culture programs like those at Bihl Haus can help facilitate public health by offering “direct and immediate health benefits, such as increased physical activity, stress-reduction, and connection,” according to the study.

The GO! Arts painting class at Bihl Haus brings painters not only from the Sorento but across the city. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

An organization like Bihl Haus Arts, deeply embedded in its neighborhood and knowledgeable about the needs of those it serves, is particularly well-positioned to help improve the quality of life of vulnerable older adults, said Stephanie LaFroscia, senior program officer for the Area Foundation.

“I think arts organizations are really adept at knowing who they’re working with, knowing the people that are coming in their doors,” she said. “It’s not transactional, it’s really about relationships.”

As the effects of the countywide “Stay Home, Work Safe” order intensify, the needs of vulnerable populations are only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic upending San Antonio society.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...