Eighty-four-year-old Audrey Lindsey joked with Mobile Meals Inc., driver Tony Garcia when he dropped off meals at her Oberlin apartment Wednesday.
“I love you dear, but you’re not getting my chicken,” she said.
But hunger among elderly people is no laughing matter. Between 2001 and 2011, the threat of hunger increased 88 percent, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.
Meanwhile, the federal budget for home-delivered meals was cut from about $216 million last year to $205 million this year, according to the Meals on Wheels Association. Ohio’s share dropped from $8.2 million to $7.7 million.
“Demand is going up,” said Phil Marcin, vice president of development for Akron-based Mobile Meals, whose service area includes Lorain County. “The money is going down.”
Mobile Meals is a Meals on Wheels organization that serves nutritious lunches that are delivered to the homebound elderly who meet certain requirements. The organization serves Lorain, Cuyahoga, Medina, Portage and Summit counties and has seen its budget decrease from $5 million in 2011 to $3.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The drop is primarily due to less federal taxpayer money, including federal sequestration cuts tied to the Congressional fight over raising the debt ceiling.
“It’s really hurt us. There’s no question about it,” Marcin said of the overall cuts. “We’re not optimistic that it is going to be increasing any time soon.”
Mobile Meals delivered 739,000 meals to 3,800 clients last year, including about 60 in Lorain County, Marcin said. Nearly all of their clients — a small number are mentally or physically disabled children — are 60 or older and homebound. Almost all live on less than $23,000 per year and receive the meals free.
Meals on Wheels menus are designed to provide at least one-third of the daily nutrients required for older adults. Each meal includes a salad, entree, starch, vegetable, bread, dessert and milk.
Clients include Helen Turner, 80, of Eaton Township, a retired nurse’s aide. Turner, who has been receiving meals for about a year, said she also receives food stamps — “but they keep going down” — and receives Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
Turner, a diabetic who uses a wheelchair, said she’s not sure if she and her husband Elmer, 81, would have enough to eat without the meals, despite both of them receiving Social Security, and Elmer, a retired auto-parts worker, receiving a pension. “It’s not enough with all the prices so high,” she said.
While Turner is married, many clients are single or their spouses have died. Some don’t have children or don’t have children who regularly visit them.
Garcia said for some, he is the only person they see on his once-per-week visits. “A lot of people are just lonely,” he said.
Garcia, a 70-year-old retired Ford Motor Co. employee who works about 25 hours per week, said he’s fortunate to receive a pension. As companies have moved away from pensions to 401(k) plans, the share of household retirement savings has dropped, according to a September report by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal thank tank. In 2010, the 20 percent wealthiest households accounted for 72 percent of a retirement savings.
Garcia, a driver since 2009, said a number of clients have told him they would go hungry without the meals. “These people are just so down and out, it’s unbelievable,” he said.
Home-delivered meals began in 1978 as an expansion of the 1965 Older Americans Act, a law designed to help needy senior citizens. But critics say funding hasn’t kept pace with need, and need has been exacerbated by the recession. Since the start of the recession at the end of 2007, the number of elderly facing the threat of hunger has increased 42 percent, according to the foundation.
Peggy Ingraham, foundation executive vice president, said that while there is no income testing for free meals served at senior centers, needy seniors who aren’t homebound aren’t eligible for home-delivered meals. Ingraham said while there needs to be more money for programs like Meals on Wheels, “they alone are not enough.”
Ingraham said an August report by the foundation found that people between 60 and 69 were at a higher risk than people in their 80s. Grandparents who had grandchildren living with them were 2.5 times more at risk of hunger than those who live alone. The report also found that blacks and Latinos each had a 31 percent likelihood of facing hunger, compared to 13 percent for whites.
Ingraham said in addition to more federal money, communities need to expand community gardens and farmers markets to help feed the elderly. She said Ohio — which ranked 26th for the threat of elderly hunger — is doing a better job than most states in addressing the problem. Ingraham said many people think that because elderly people receive Medicare and Social Security, hunger isn’t a problem.
“The nation, as a whole, has been largely unaware of the problem that it is for seniors,” she said. “It’s huge.”
Marcin said Mobile Meals is attempting to increase private donations and recruit more volunteers. He said the group would prefer to deliver hot meals daily, but often delivers five frozen meals once per week to stretch their budget.
Lorain County clients receive frozen meals only.
Marcin, 75, was hired by Mobile Meals in 2005. He said he has worked in the social services field his entire life and understands the hunger threat. Marcin said rising income inequality in America has exacerbated the problem.
The incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent grew 31.4 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to a September study by University of California at Berkley economist Emmanuel Saez. The bottom 99 percent saw growth of 0.4 percent.
“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” Marcin said. “There’s got to be a better way we can take care of our elderly people. They are, in many ways, so helpless.”
Lindsey, a retired bartender and Lorain Board of Education worker, said she relies on food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security to survive. Lindsey, who uses a walker, has diabetes and severe arthritis.
She has received meals from Mobile Meals since 2010 and said she doesn’t worry about potential cutbacks to the program.
“Worrying ain’t going to get you nothing but a headache,” she said. “I just thank the Lord that I can eat every day.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or email@example.com.
The threat of hunger is rising among elderly people as funding for home-delivered meals drops.
- About 15.2 percent of elderly people — 8.8 million — faced the threat of hunger in 2011.
- Ohio ranked 26th in the nation with a 13.8 percent threat rate.
- The number of elderly facing the threat of hunger increased 88 percent between 2001and 2011.
- Seniors between the ages of 60 and 69 had the highest threat rate at about 17 percent. Those with grandchildren in the home had a nearly 35 percent rate compared to 14.2 percent without grandchildren in the home.
- Black and Latino seniors had rates of about 31 percent compared to about 13 percent for whites.
- The federal budget for home-delivered meals was cut 6.2 percent between 2012 and 2013.
IF YOU WANT TO HELP
Volunteers are sought by Mobile Meals Inc., to deliver meals to needy seniors. For more information, call Phil Marcin at (330) 376-7717 ext. 148, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: National Foundation to End Senior Hunger: State of Senior Hunger in America 2011, released in September 2013; Meals on Wheels Association