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Number of seniors threatened by hunger has doubled since 2001, and it’s going to get worse

May 22, 2015 at 6:35 PM EST
Nearly one in six senior citizens face the threat of hunger in the United States. Charity and food stamps reach some of these vulnerable Americans, but limited resources and isolation mean many are struggling without receiving help. Special correspondent Sarah Varney reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been called one of the longest-lasting and cruelest effects of the great recession. Millions of senior citizens who were caught up in the economic collapse now struggle to put food on the table.

Sarah Varney has our report from Naples, Florida.

This story was produced in collaboration with our partner Kaiser Health News.

SARAH VARNEY: It’s not easy to spot amid the sparkling waters, luxurious condos and high-end recreation. But in recent years, daily life for many seniors in this sunlit paradise has turned bleak.

WOMAN: This is my biggest gripe. I say, ‘All my life, I struggled. So, now in my ’70s, I have to struggle all over again?’  It bothered me a lot.

WOMAN: I was in control. But the recession has done terrible things.

WOMAN: I never in my life thought I would need charity.

SARAH VARNEY: Less than two miles away from the sandy Gulf beaches is the Naples Senior Center.

Jackie Faffer established these weekly luncheons to give older Floridians a place to socialize. But it soon became apparent just how desperately people needed the food served here.

JACLYNN FAFFER, Jewish Family and Community Services of Southwest Florida: I didn’t think that I would find the depth of the challenges that are faced by people, and specifically the seniors. We have, of our 676 members, about 60 percent are at, near or below the poverty line.

SARAH VARNEY: Many are like Mina and Angelo Maffucci. After raising their children, they sold their suburban New Jersey home and moved to southwest Florida to enjoy semi-retirement.

But Angelo could no longer work to supplement their Social Security income after seriously injuring his back, followed by prostate cancer.

MINA MAFFUCCI: This is when we first got here. This is when we first came to Florida.

SARAH VARNEY: Like others in their generation who built comfortable lives during the height of American prosperity, the Maffuccis found themselves instead entering an uncertain retirement. A faltering economy, sickness and bad luck drained their savings. They lost their home to foreclosure and had to move into a condo owned by their son, where they continued struggling to pay for medication and basic expenses.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: At that time, when we were on our hands and knees, practically, let’s put it that way, and we opened up the closet, and all we had was coffee, so we made it. And that’s what we had. If we found a slice of toast or something, we had that, too. Cereal, once in a blue moon.

MINA MAFFUCCI: We didn’t know where to go, because we didn’t have — ever had a problem like this before. And we hated to ask people for help or this or that, you know?

SARAH VARNEY: A plaque on the wall of the Maffuccis’ home is a harsh daily reminder of their grim fortunes.

There are more than 9.5 million Americans over the age of 60 who struggle to pay for food. The problem has only worsened since the end of the great recession and the collapse of the housing market, even in the most unexpected places. The most recent data show one in six seniors now face the threat of hunger.

From 2001 to 2013, the number of seniors experiencing uncertainty over where their food would come from more than doubled. In 2013 alone, an additional 300,000 people over the age of 60 had difficulty buying or accessing food. The need for good nutrition is vital for seniors. Without it, they can become frail and weak. Chronically hungry seniors face a greater risk of depression, diabetes, congestive heart failure and heart attack.

Enid Borden is president of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger in the Washington, D.C., area.

ENID BORDEN, The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger: We’re doing a worse job of trying to end senior hunger in America. You would think, with so much money that is poured into it, that, in fact, the numbers would be better than they are, but they’re not. So, if we continue to look at it and if we can to beat our heads against the wall and expect a different outcome, shame on us.

MAN: Suzanne, Meals on Wheels.

SARAH VARNEY: Borden says programs like Meals on Wheels serve an important role in many communities, like this one in Naples. But while charities provide temporary help to hungry seniors, they often have waiting lists that in some places stretch on for years. And charities and church groups can’t always address the underlying poverty that causes persistent food insecurity.

More so, advocates say the seniors touched by charity programs are the success stories. By most estimates, there are many more older Americans who remain out of sight.

THOMAS FELKE, Florida Gulf Coast University: There’s a hidden problem here, and it’s a little bit invisible.

SARAH VARNEY: Professor Tom Felke recently analyzed poverty rates among seniors in Naples as part of his work at Florida Gulf Coast University. He found many poor retirees are living in gated communities, but the very gates meant to signify safety and status are hampering efforts to help those seniors who are struggling with hunger.

THOMAS FELKE: And we know it exists. But I don’t think we don’t know the depth to which it exists. We just need to access them … getting inside those communities and letting people know: ‘These are programs that are available to you.’

SARAH VARNEY: Felke says that will require stepped-up efforts by groups like the Harry Chapin Food Bank, where outreach workers aggressively target apartments and senior centers to sign people up for food stamps other nutrition programs.

Only one-third of eligible seniors are enrolled in food stamps, compared to three-quarters of the eligible general population.

AL BRISLAIN, Harry Chapin Food Bank: In some ways, seniors are the hardest people to reach, because part of it’s the pride, part of it’s that they don’t have the knowledge of the social service system, and part of it is their isolation.

SARAH VARNEY: Al Brislain is president of the local food bank.

AL BRISLAIN: If you’re a single senior sitting in an apartment, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go. And so getting out to them, getting the word out is half the battle, and also reassuring them that they deserve this help, that it’s neighbors helping neighbors, that it’s the government supporting you in your time of need.

SARAH VARNEY: Mina and Angelo Maffucci now get deliveries from a local food pantry and receive $34 a week in food stamps. They’re grateful for the help, but they also know their circumstances are unlikely to change.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: We can’t work anymore. And I don’t want to put a burden on my children that you have to give us each $100 a month or something like that.

MINA MAFFUCCI: And we — I wouldn’t ask them.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: I wouldn’t ask them for anything like that. So, the only thing we can hope for and pray for is that we live a little longer together.

MINA MAFFUCCI: Yes.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: You know?

SARAH VARNEY: With millions of baby boomers heading toward their sunset years, most on fixed incomes, researchers expect the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger will rise by 50 percent over the next decade.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Sarah Varney in Naples, Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our reporting team spent more time with seniors who are struggling to make ends meet. We have their stories, along with a photo essay, which you can find on our home page. That’s PBS.org/NewsHour.

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