The Real Hunger Games
Volunteers fill bags with food at a foodbank in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Eva Perdue, her legs wrapped in a black- and-white-checked blanket, a bright red kerchief tied in her hair, sits on a couch in her small house near downtown Atlanta that Habitat for Humanity built. She once worked as a housekeeper at a Georgia state mental facility but quit nine years ago to care for a sick husband. Now 64 and widowed, Perdue herself is sick. “Curses of the liver and high blood pressure,” she says. She has little money to buy any food, let alone healthy food: $98 is all she has after bills are paid from her $848 monthly Social Security check plus $68 worth of food stamps.
The morning I visited Perdue, she had eaten for breakfast the breading from two corn dogs, washed down with a cup of tea. The corn dogs she gave to her 18-year-old grandson, who lives with her. Too much salt, she said. “I can eat cereal. But I have no milk.” A gallon would cost $3 or $4, which Perdue did not have. Lunch might be a small salad with some rust-tinged cabbage and carrots from a convenience store up the street. She wasn’t sure about supper or what she’d eat the next day—if she ate at all.
Perdue tried to get help from Meals on Wheels Atlanta. In mid-April of 2012, she was twenty-seventh on a waiting list of 120. In November, she was still on the list, which had grown to 198. Her daughter finally found another program.
Such is the world of food rationing for the elderly—the hidden hunger few ever see. Tenille Johnson, one of two case managers at Meals on Wheels Atlanta, said there were others on the list who were even more in need than Perdue. In 2012, the program served 106,000 meals—up from 84,000 three years before—and it will serve about 114,000 this year. “We’ve been able to up our game and reduce the waiting list to between 145 and 160 seniors, but the need has outpaced us,” says executive director Jeffrey Smythe. “The numbers are going up more quickly than we projected. We have waiting lists all over the metro Atlanta area, even in suburban counties.”
The reason is simple: there’s not enough money from federal, state or local governments to support most of the country’s meal programs, or from private organizations that fund those like Smythe’s. In 1965, when people in need ranked higher on the nation’s list of priorities, Congress enacted the Older Americans Act, which still provides a smorgasbord of programs like transportation, case management and personal care administered through the federal Area Agencies on Aging. A major goal was to help seniors remain in their homes. In 1972, President Nixon strengthened that commitment. Meals supported by federal dollars would be available at community centers. And in 1978 came meals delivered to the homes of those who could no longer shop or cook.
Throughout the 1970s, funding was in sync with need, but not after that. Numbers tell the story. While funding for home-delivered meals increased 43 percent from 2001 to 2011, the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger rose 87 percent in that period. At the same time, prices for food, gasoline and other services increased 27 percent. Looked at another way, inflation-adjusted per capita spending on home-delivered meals for people over age 60 (the eligible population) declined from $4.16 in 2001 to $3.67 in 2011, nearly a 12 percent decrease. That has meant a reduction in the number of seniors served from about 941,000 in 2005 to 856,000 in 2011. Why the disconnect? “This is a discretionary program, and [more funding] hasn’t been the discourse permitted in recent Congresses,” says Edwin Walker, deputy assistant secretary in the US Administration on Aging.
Eating, however, is not discretionary, but more and more seniors are going hungry. In 2005, some 5 million people over age 60—about 11 percent of America’s senior population—faced the threat of hunger, according to a study by the Meals on Wheels Association, the nation’s largest trade group for meal providers. In 2012, that number was almost 15 percent. “Between 2001 and 2010, we have seen a 78 percent growth in the number of seniors facing hunger,” says Enid Borden, founder and president of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. While the threat is more prevalent among blacks and Hispanics, the largest increases have been among whites, particularly women, those in rural areas, the “young old” between 60 and 69, and the poor and near-poor with incomes in the $12,000 to $23,000 range. Many, once solidly in the middle class, now find themselves with little money as old age robs their savings.
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Meanwhile, waiting lists for food have been growing for years all over the country. They will stretch even longer as sequestration slices budgets even more this fall. I first examined this problem for The Nation fifteen years ago, when I reported that the federal government’s commitment to feeding the homebound elderly had waned, with flatlined funding or small increases in appropriations [see Lieberman, “Hunger in America,” March 30, 1998]. There was increasing pressure to cover the shortfalls by competing for financial handouts from local philanthropic organizations. That has created a divide between richer meal programs that have funding sources in their communities and poorer ones that do not. Fundraising is easier in San Francisco, for example, than in rural communities.
Little has changed in the last fifteen years, except that the need has grown larger. Waiting lists have sprouted in parts of the country that didn’t have them before. Mary Alice Rountree, who heads the Caddo Council on Aging in Shreveport, Louisiana, told me her program had the largest waiting list in northwest Louisiana in 2012—between 200 and 300 people were on it, even though her program was serving more than 1,000 meals a day. But a HUD community development grant that paid for hundreds of meals had just disappeared. Without money from private sources, Rountree says, her waiting list would be greater than 500, and she could serve only 600 to 700 meals.
Even in places like New York City, which “provides more support than any other jurisdiction in the country,” according to the city’s commissioner on aging, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the increase in poverty among seniors (currently one-fifth of the city’s elderly are poor) will strain capacity. The city and state provide 90 percent of the city’s $31 million budget for home-delivered meals; the rest comes from the federal government. Even though state and local funding has been substantial, the private group City Meals on Wheels has had to supply some 2 million weekend, emergency and holiday meals to fill the gap.