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.