'Hidden hungry' numbers swell in Manatee

aveciana@MiamiHerald.comSeptember 2, 2013 

When the bus that ferried him to a congregant lunch center for seniors lost its funding -- a result of the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration -- Wencelao Gonzalez of Miami lost something, too: almost 10 pounds in less than two months.

"If I'm left alone, I have to remember to prepare something," said the 78-year-old retired bakery plant worker. "I probably don't eat so good."

Gonzalez, a diabetic who has Parkinson's disease, now eats lunch at the federal hot meals program at the Olga Martinez Center in West Kendall when he can find a ride. The bus that carried him and about 25 other older adults to the center, one of 15 run by the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center, is not likely to be reinstated any time soon.

Stories like this one, senior advocates say, are all too common. At a time when the stock market has reached record highs and housing has rebounded, research shows plenty of people, many of them older adults, are struggling.

Some are going hungry.

Food Bank of Manatee Director Cindy Sloan said demand from the needy has grown exponentially in her six years.

"When I came on board, donated food amounted to about 1 million," Sloan said. "This year we'll probably hit 4 million. Demand is higher than donations."

In order to meet mushrooming demand, the Food Bank of Manatee picks up perishables from a net

work of 34 different retail grocery stores. The massive food distribution operation is run by just eight employees, including five full-timers, Sloan said.

Senior Meals on Wheels routes run out of the warehouse serve roughly 700 seniors in Manatee County a day.

"The idea of senior hunger surprises people, but it's very much a reality," said Peggy Ingraham, executive vice president of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger in Alexandria, Va. "We call them the hidden hungry."

Unlike other groups, she added, "once they draw down their resources, they usually don't have a way to get out."

New reports show more older adults than previously thought are living in poverty and going hungry. Recent sequester cutbacks -- a total of $85 billion went into effect March 1 when Congress and the White House failed to reach a compromise on the budget -- have exacerbated the problem by hacking away at senior nutrition programs.

"People don't realize how much senior hunger has grown," said Blane Turpin, director of Food Bank client programs in Manatee County. "Demand from seniors has definitely gone up. The food coming in is going back out as soon as it comes in."

The Food Bank receives funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency but the lion's share of support comes from donations and the United Way, Turpin said. He said a donations slump may been more damaging than sequestration.

"Donations are down," Turpin said. "I don't know what to attribute it to. Some former donors have actually become our customers. A lot more families are still going through crisis. I don't know if the job market has reached the point where it needs to be."

Adding to the pressure is the crush of Baby Boomers whose retirement was wrecked by the Great Recession or failure to properly prepare financially for the years after work.

"The Baby Boomers turning over the age of 60 are increasing dramatically," Turpin said. "Seniors are living longer and some are actually outliving their retirement."

The ranks of the hidden hungry continue to swell.

"We're not keeping pace with the demographics or the need," said Max Rothman, CEO at the Alliance for Aging, which covers Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. "I've never seen anything like it. There's no precedent for this, even during the cuts in the Reagan years."

The number of food-insecure seniors above the age of 60 more than doubled to 4.8 million between 2001 and 2011, according to Spotlight on Senior Hunger 2011, released in May by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and Feeding America.

Florida ranks ninth in the percentage of food-insecure seniors with 16.64 percent not sure where their next meal is coming from, said Ingraham, citing another report called the Senior Hunger Report Card.

When her organization uses a broader index to include seniors marginally at risk of hunger, the number of food-insecure older adults jumps to 8.3 million. "And there's no reason to expect the trend to change," Ingraham added.

The rate of senior hunger increased over the past decade mostly because of the Great Recession. The growth was most pronounced among those 60 to 69, according to the Spotlight report. Experts speculate more seniors are retiring with a smaller nest egg and, if working, they experience longer periods of unemployment.

The Spotlight study also found seniors are most likely to be food insecure if they live in a southern state or with a grandchild. African-American and Hispanic seniors are also almost twice as likely to go hungry, but food-insecure older adults live everywhere -- in North Miami Beach and Florida City, in high-rises and in single-family houses, among the still-working and the just retired.

That's because food insecurity is not always a matter of money.

"We are dealing with both an isolation issue and a pride issue," said Margie Lee, field coordinator for the local AARP office.

Studies by advocacy groups have shown that as many as half of food-insecure seniors have the money to purchase food but don't have the resources to access or prepare food because of disabilities, chronic ailments or lack of transportation.

Wencelao Gonzalez is one such example.

In addition, older Americans are less inclined to sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, even as enrollment in SNAP has soared. Less than 40 percent of eligible seniors participate in the food stamp program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

AARP's own study found among Americans 50 years and older, food insecurity had soared by 79 percent to almost 9 million people between 2001 and 2009. This prompted the advocacy group to launch Drive to End Hunger in February 2011, a nationwide campaign to raise awareness and money as well as develop solutions to the hunger problem.

Feeding South Florida, which partners with 350 nonprofit food banks, pantries and other agencies to distribute food, has seen a 39 percent increase in requests for help in the past two years. Sari Vatske, vice president of programs and initiatives, believes the jump is fueled, in part, by a surge in seniors. The organization is looking into a mobile pantry to deliver food to the apartment towers in Miami Beach because many older adults are homebound.

"They're falling through the cracks," Vatske said. "They don't qualify for benefits and they're barely making it on Social Security."

At the Florida City pantry run by the Food of Life Outreach Ministries, one of Feeding South Florida's partners, Pastor Wayne Oxford helps between 3,000 and 4,000 people a month, about 40 percent of them seniors.

"Seniors," Oxford said, "have it particularly bad because they have limited options. Many of them don't drive or they're incapacitated. They have to depend on someone."

Mary Liggins, 76, of Homestead, is one of Oxford's steady customers. Every Wednesday, she drives her motorized scooter six long blocks from her Section 8 subsidized apartment to pick up her free bag of groceries. A mother of nine who worked in South Miami-Dade farms all her life, she depleted her savings when her husband got cancer. By the time he died in 1996, she was struggling and now survives on $800 in Social Security and $88 in food stamps a month. Five years ago, she resigned herself to a wheelchair because of arthritis and a bad back.

Each month, after she pays bills that include co-pays for eight prescriptions, there isn't much left.

"I pay all my bills, but sometimes I have to rob Peter to pay Paul. I talk to the supervisor for my electric and ask to pay a little more the next month. I do the same with the telephone."

The sequester has further impaired nonprofit attempts to help seniors. Cuts to the Meals on Wheels program have meant that, nationally, 50 percent of meal providers are reducing the number of seniors served and 70 percent are cutting the number of meals. One in six are closing congregate sites or home-delivered meal programs and 40 percent are reducing the number of days they deliver meals. On average, Meals on Wheels programs across the country have had to cut 364 meals a day.

What does this mean on a local level?

In Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, the congregant meal program has lost almost 10 percent of its budget, or $600,138, said Rothman, of the Alliance for Aging. The home-based nutrition program, also run by Meals on Wheels providers, was trimmed by 1.58 percent, or $177.409, and. Broward Meals on Wheels lost about 8 percent of its budget, or $527,000.

Each provider has dealt with the shortfall differently. Broward Meals on Wheels, for example, stopped serving meals in Cooper City and Wilton Manors.

At the Olga Martinez Center, coordinator Esperanza Rodriguez saw an initial drop of almost 50 percent in the money to fund meals. In January, the center was serving 100 hot lunches. By late spring it was down to 59 meals. Now it's back up to 80 meals. The loss of the bus -- the same bus that picked up Gonzalez -- has been especially harsh because some of the neediest seniors, those without transportation, were the ones most affected.

"For so many, this is the one hot meal they get that day," Rodriguez said. "But it's really beyond the food and getting fed. There's a social aspect to coming here, too, and it's very important to prevent social isolation among our elderly population."

At Jewish Community Services of South Florida, which took a $14,400 hit in the budget for home-delivered meals and $27,500 to congregant food services, CEO Fred Stock has covered the loss through fundraising from the Jewish community. That, however, is a temporary measure.

"At the moment, we can fill the gap but we'll be sorely challenged in the future," Stock said.

-- Bradenton Herald Night Metro Editor Terry O'Connor contributed to this story.

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