high-rises and in single-family houses, among the still-working and the just
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 that, 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 that jump is fueled, in part, by a surge in seniors, though she doesn't keep such numbers. The organization is looking into a mobile pantry that will 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, Fla., 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 wheel chair 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 nonprofits' attempt 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 is 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.
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."
(c)2013 The Miami Herald
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