Two years ago in Dallas, I met an 85-year-old woman and her 65-year-old son. Both were very hungry with almost no food in their fridge or in their cupboards. After they had paid their bills, their meager monthly income from Social Security was dwindling. For lunch the mother wanted boiled cabbage with lima beans and collards, but the son reminded her there was no money for that. It was the second week of the month.
They had been on waiting list for food from the Visiting Nurse Association of Texas, the Meals-on-Wheels provider in Dallas. About 800 names were on the list the day I visited.
Indeed, there are waiting lists all over the country, and the statistics are as grim as the prospect of having no food for lunch. The anti-hunger group Feeding America found that nearly 8 percent of Americans 60 and older were food insecure: about 5.5 million seniors.
This year’s congressional budgets are, at least, beginning to address that horrifying statistic.
In the meantime, Feeding America found that almost 10 percent of the Dallas population age 60 and older were “food insecure,” meaning they didn’t have consistent access to enough food for good health.
The numbers were even worse in other parts of the South. Nearly 12 percent of the senior population in Mississippi and about 10 percent in Alabama, for example, were food insecure. The problem is hardly confined to the South, though. In Indiana, Feeding America said, nearly 8 percent of seniors were not getting proper food; in South Dakota it was 7.3 percent.
The number of hungry seniors has more than doubled since 2001 and is expected to keep increasing. Meal programs almost everywhere struggle to keep up with the growing demand.
This was the third time in 20 years I found myself reporting on hunger among seniors in America. The numbers of elders on waiting lists has grown since I first visited the topic in 1998 and called attention to the irony of older people coming home from the hospital but finding themselves without the food they needed to heal. When I worked with Kaiser Health News on a third story published just two months ago, focusing on the plight of seniors in Memphis, we found the same thing. Very little had changed except that many more people needed help.
“There are tens of thousands of seniors who are waiting,” said Erika Kelly, chief advocacy officer for Meals on Wheels America. “While they’re waiting, their health deteriorates, and in some cases we know seniors have died.”
Why is this problem so severe in a country so rich? The answer, very simply, is disagreements over funding. In 1965 Congress anticipated an aging population would need social services and passed the Older Americans Act. In 1972 it added the home-delivered meals program as well as congregate meals available in many locations. But federal dollars haven’t kept pace with need, and funds from state and local governments, which often filled in the gaps, have also fallen short.
When that happens, programs must scramble to make up the shortfall, often relying on local philanthropy to help out. But that’s hard to do in places like Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for example, where there are few community resources to tap.
Meals on Wheels America says the nutrition programs are serving 21 million fewer meals a year than in 2005 because of funding shortages. Kelly told me that last year Congress bumped up funding for the program by only $10 million, which means many local programs still experience serious shortfalls.
This year an appropriations bill that has passed the House of Representatives calls for a hefty increase, raising the funding from $906.7 million to one $1 billion. Kelly says, “It would be a record increase.”
The Senate’s appropriations bill, however, is calling for “flat funding,” which means no increase for next year. Advocacy groups are lobbying to change that before the Senate votes on a final bill.
You’d never know from the constant news drumbeat about impeachment and the president that there is other news in Washington. But there is.
Whether the Senate decides to increase the budget for home-delivered meals is one story that will tell us whether seniors across America will have enough to eat.
Have you known seniors who have needed food but couldn’t get it? Write to Trudy and email@example.com.
This piece was originally published as part of Community Health News Service series, “Thinking About Health,” on November 4, 2019.