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Striking the right balance when reporting on vulnerable older adults Date: 06/10/19


Lisa Gillespie

By Lisa Gillespie

There’s been a lot written in Louisville about food deserts. But the one thing I found missing was the “why” in those stories. Why should anyone care that grocery stores have closed, leaving large parts of lower-income neighborhoods without access to healthy food? I’d read research on the impact of poor nutrition on health on older adults, and set out to answer that question. 

In reporting my story “For Some Older Adults in Louisville, Daily Nutrition is a Struggle” for NPR affiliate WPFL, I nailed down interviews with experts — the researchers who had measured the impact of programs like Meals on Wheels on older adults’ longevity and health and other who had studied the cyclical relationship between progressing health problems and the loss of ability to get to healthy food in grocery stores. That part was easy. But I had to find a person to tell this story, someone who was living that food insecurity.

I reached out to several area nonprofits that run food pantries, and found one that let me come on a food pickup day. That’s where I met Shaun Clay.

He’s 61 and said he’d worked in earlier years, but now relied on Social Security Disability. He said he likes apples, onions, garlic and green beans, but those things weren’t a main part of his diet for two reasons. One was that he didn’t have much money — produce costs more than items he could buy in bulk with a longer shelf life. He also didn’t have a car in a city where the bus service is unreliable and slow.

It’s hard to know how his food consumption might affect his longevity, but then he shared a few stories that illuminated how much food affected his health. Last winter he’d fallen on ice, resulting in a long hospital stay. His usual trek to a food pantry a few miles away became impossible because of his limited mobility. He resorted to asking his kids to bring him food, which was usually fast food. 

The complicated part I ran into was that he had basically given into the idea that he was going to die soon, and therefore, didn’t see a need to eat healthily. He told me he also battled chronic depression that seemed in part due to his situation. His story wasn’t cut and dry, as most people’s stories aren’t. But I realized that this, too, was part of the story.

Clay looked headed toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. He was convinced he wouldn’t live past 70 — and indeed life expectancy in the west part of Louisville is about 10 years shorter some of the eastern parts of the city. And so his food choices played a role in living and enjoying life while he could.

Another challenge I had in writing this story was dealing with some guilt that came from reporting the story as a journalist. Foreign correspondents in war zones report the guilt that can come from reporting on situations where people need help, but there’s an ethical line that stops them.

Clay asked if my photographer and I would bring him food in exchange for talking to us. I told him no, which was tough. This often happens when I’m reporting health care stories — I come from a place of privilege. I have a job and I know I’ll likely never face the same challenges in food insecurity because of familial support. Journalism can change things, but those changes are often not in the ways of laws or government investigations. Change is slow and sometime indirect. For all I knew, my radio story would be heard by someone who would decide to donate to a food pantry or had the ability to change food policy.

Shortly after my story aired, the executive director of an area nonprofit contacted me. She said Clay might qualify for a monthly food box delivery and ask me to pass on her information to him. I did, and later found out that he’d received his first delivery. It was helping. Though I have no idea if my story will make a dent in the food insecurity issue for older adults in my city, I feel good that at least one person was impacted.

Lisa Gillespie (@LVGillespie) is the health and innovation reporter at NPR affiliate WPFL-FM in Louisville, Kentucky. Before that, she was a reporter for Kaiser Health News. Her work has appeared in Inside Health Policy, Forbes, Learnvest.com, The Tan Sheet and Employee Benefit News. During her career, Gillespie has covered topics from Medicaid and Medicare payment policy and rural hospital closures to science funding and the dietary supplement market.