Fruit for seniors really a blessing

YORK -- They sat at tables Thursday afternoon and filled out blue forms that asked how old they were and how much money they made. Then more than 50 people older than age 60, most a lot older than that, and mostly women to boot, stood in line.

Just for $25 worth of coupons redeemable for fruit and vegetables at certified South Carolina roadside markets.

Was it possible that proud people, black and white, who had worked all their lives in factories and fields, should have to wait in line for a few dollars for fruit?

Then one of these people from a generation of work explained to me in one line why that generation is so great.

"Some peaches are better than no peaches," said a wonderful woman named Sarah Neely.

Neely, 69, worked 39 years in textile mills. She retired at age 67, only because her declining health meant she couldn't be on her feet all day anymore. Her husband, Mozel, is retired, too. They raised seven children. Between them, total, they bring home $1,394 a month.

They come from an era before retirement plans, and from a working world where a pension was something other people who were lucky got.

From that monthly money goes the car payment and the insurance, the light bill and the water bill and the phone bill and the medicine. And the food. And everything else.

"Thank God the house is paid for," Neely said.

Neely pointed at herself, a woman who has worked all her life and not asked for a thing.

"I need this," she said.

She pointed at her lady friends, all of them older than she is. "We all need this."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture program, administered through the York County Council On Aging, helped 550 people this summer through Thursday's last bunch. It has a fancy name nobody uses: Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. It started in 2001, aimed at helping older adults and local farmers. Neely can choose from 32 vegetables and 19 fruits that area farmers grow and sell on the roadside.

"Apples I love," she said. "And peaches."

To be eligible, people 60 and older have to meet certain requirements. That's what the government says when it says if you have too much money, you don't get $25 worth of anything.

I asked Neely if it hurt her pride to get $25 worth of coupons from this program, and she said no.

"My mother taught me every little bit helps, and don't look a gift horse in the mouth," she said. "I won't grumble. It helps. If I knew about it last year, I would have been here last year."

Wendy Duda, executive director of the Council on Aging, personally processed applications Thursday along with a couple of other workers. If the person couldn't stand, Duda went to the table. York County originally was supposed to get 450 coupons. Duda, a gem, finagled an extra 100.

"One of the best programs we have," Duda said.

But still, I counted one wheelchair and five walkers. Gray hair and white hair, blue hair and no hair. Should anybody at this age have to go anywhere to get $25 in chits, then have to go to the market, too?

When a lady called out from across the room to the workers, "This is a blessing. Thank you!" I had my answer.

Doretha Murray, at 85 years old, reinforced the point that pride wasn't the issue Thursday. Being grateful was.

"I've learned money isn't everything," Murray told me. "You got God in your heart, you do what is right, you will be fine. I picked cotton for 5 cents a hundred. Half a day on Saturday, then gave all the money in that envelope to momma and daddy. They taught me right. It doesn't hurt my pride to get this today. I'm never too high to accept a blessing."

She stopped and asked me to turn her walker around so she could get up from her chair and leave. I did as I was asked.

This regal woman then said, "If I was stealing, I would be ashamed."

There is little doubt York County and this state could and should do more for the people who worked their whole lives than give out $25 worth of coupons for produce.

Yet it's something these people didn't have before they arrived, is what they told me.

People left mainly wearing smiles. I heard whispered offers from a few, to others, to give what they had received to people who might need it more.

And finally, I realized these proud people have something so much more special than coupons for fruit.