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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 23, 2012

With art by Forest Byrd

Pull for the elderly until our government fills the gap

Old people in our midst are hungry; some are starving.

They deserve better, yet their plight often goes unrecognized.

A recent report, “Senior Hunger in the United States,” underwritten by the Meals on Wheels Association of America, has determined that, in an average year, nearly 6 percent of seniors, or 2.7 million, are at risk of hunger. Although the percentages in the current report are similar to those in a 2008 report, the numbers of elderly people affected by what the authors call “food insecurity” have increased by 200,000 because of the growing ranks of Americans over the age of 60.

The problem is not restricted to the poor: Over 38 percent have incomes below the poverty line but, the report says, one in seven “food insecure households” have annual incomes above twice the poverty line.

To calculate “food insecurity rates,” the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Security Module asks a series of questions, like, “Did you or the other adults in your household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?” or, over a year, “Did you ever not eat for a full day three or more times?”

Based on calculations made from answers to questions like this, households are placed in four categories: fully food secure, marginally food secure, low food secure, or very low food secure.

Hunger haunts all age groups in our country.

The USDA reports that last year, 17.2 million households faced food insecurity, and 59 percent participated in one or more of the three largest nutrition assistance programs — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, which issues food stamps provided benefits to 45 million last year; the National School Lunch Program served 32 million children; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, benefited 9 million last year.

Two of those federal programs are deservedly geared for the young, who are also vulnerable, and the third, SNAP, can be problematic for the elderly who, in addition to lacking funds often lack the wherewithal to shop for and prepare food. Hence, the value of a program like Meals on Wheels, which delivers prepared meals to their doors.

The authors of the Meals on Wheels report — James P. Ziliak, who directs the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, and Craig Gundersen, who teaches at Iowa State University — focus on three categories: the marginally food insecure; the food insecure who are at risk of hunger; and the very low food secure who suffer from hunger. Using the broader definition, over 5 million elderly Americans — 11.4 percent of all seniors — are facing the threat of hunger.

Surprisingly, the seniors most likely to be at risk of hunger are those aged 60 to 64. An 84-year-old is one-third less likely to be at risk of hunger than a 64-year-old.

Not surprisingly, those at risk of hunger are more likely to be in poor health, and the impact on their activities of daily living, which the report calls ADL, is staggering. A senior at risk of hunger has the same ADL limitation as someone 14 years older; in other words a 64-year-old suffering hunger is likely to have the ADL limitations of a 78-year-old.

The researchers found that southern states have the highest rates of food insecurity for the elderly. The state with the highest rate is Mississippi at 12 percent; North Dakota has the lowest rate at 1.5 percent. New York is in the middle, ranking 28th with a rate of 5 percent.

The data for the study was gathered before the recession hit, so the current picture of hunger for the elderly is even bleaker.

By the year 2025, when the youngest of the baby boomers reach the age of 60, the report predicts, 75 percent more seniors will experience some form of food insecurity and 33 percent more will suffer hunger.

Certainly, this demands attention at the federal and state levels. But, in the meantime, individuals can make a difference locally.

Here in Albany County, Senior Services of Albany, a not-for-profit organization, takes part in the Meals on Wheels program. “We serve a total of 300,000 meals a year to Capital Region residents,” Donna Vancavage, the director of development, told us. The meals are delivered by over 400 volunteers.

“We can always use more,” said Vancavage. Volunteers can sign up for as few or as many hours as they like, and are assigned the same clients week after week, so they get to know them. “Two weeks ago,” said Vancavage, “a woman in Colonie fell and broke her femur. When one of our volunteers came to deliver her meal and she didn’t answer, the volunteer walked to the window and saw her, then called for emergency help.”

While not all the client-volunteer relationships lead to such dramatic rescues, they are helpful and supportive. Over 900 meals a day are prepared on Rensselaer Street in Albany and delivered, among other places, to Guilderland and the Hilltowns.

Anyone 18 or older who drives can volunteer by calling Amanda Oliver at 432-0813. We urge our readers to do so. Contributions are also welcome and essential.

Funding for Senior Services has gotten more difficult with the recession, said Vancavage. The not-for-profit organization has a budget of just over $3 million, she said, which pays for six employees who run myriad programs.

Not only is county funding declining, Vancavage said, but grants are now harder to come by, too.

While the recession has made funding Meals on Wheels tougher, it has also made it more necessary. “Some people are deciding between filling a prescription and paying for food,” said Vancavage. “People don’t think of their grandparents as being in need, but often they are.”

We urge government funding of such programs, not just because society needs to provide for its most vulnerable members, but because it makes sound economic sense.

“Our mission is to keep people in their homes as long as possible,” said Vancavage. “It’s much cheaper than a nursing home. Getting one or two meals delivered a day makes the difference.”

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