Army veteran Eugene Milligan fell off a charity’s rolls for home-delivered meals, he had to rely on others to bring him food. Tribune News Service
Laura Ungar and Trudy Lieberman, Tribune News Service
Army veteran Eugene Milligan is 75 years old and blind. He uses a wheelchair since losing half his right leg to diabetes and gets dialysis for kidney failure. And he has struggled to get enough to eat.
Earlier this year, he ended up in the hospital after burning himself while boiling water for oatmeal. The long stay caused the Memphis vet to fall off a charity’s rolls for home-delivered Meals on Wheels, so he had to rely on others, such as his son, a generous off-duty nurse and a local church to bring him food.
“Many times, I’ve felt like I was starving,” he said. “There’s neighbours that need food too. There’s people at dialysis that need food. There’s hunger everywhere.”
Indeed, millions of seniors across the country quietly go hungry as the safety net designed to catch them frays. Nearly 8% of Americans 60 and older were “food insecure” in 2017, according to a recent study released by the anti-hunger group Feeding America. That’s 5.5 million seniors who don’t have consistent access to enough food for a healthy life, a number that has more than doubled since 2001 and is only expected to grow as America grays.
While the plight of hungry children elicits support and can be tackled in schools, the plight of hungry older Americans is shrouded by isolation and a generation’s pride. The problem is most acute in parts of the South and Southwest. Louisiana has the highest rate among states, with 12% of seniors facing food insecurity. Memphis fares worst among major metropolitan areas, with 17% of seniors like Milligan unsure of their next meal.
And government relief falls short. One of the main federal programmes helping seniors is starved for money. The Older Americans Act — passed more than half a century ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms — was amended in 1972 to provide for home-delivered and group meals, along with other services, for anyone 60 and older. But its funding has lagged far behind senior population growth, as well as economic inflation.
The biggest chunk of the act’s budget, nutrition services, dropped by 8% over the past 18 years when adjusted for inflation, an AARP report found in February. Home-delivered and group meals have decreased by nearly 21 million since 2005. Only a fraction of those facing food insecurity get any meal services under the act; a US Government Accountability Office report examining 2013 data found 83% got none.
With the act set to expire Sept. 30, Congress is now considering its reauthorization and how much to spend going forward.
Meanwhile, according to the US Department of Agriculture, only 45% of eligible adults 60 and older have signed up for another source of federal aid: SNAP, the food stamp programme for America’s poorest. Those who don’t are typically either unaware they could qualify, believe their benefits would be tiny or can no longer get to a grocery store to use them.
Even fewer seniors may have SNAP in the future. More than 13% of SNAP households with elderly members would lose benefits under a recent Trump administration proposal.
For now, millions of seniors — especially low-income ones — go without. Across the nation, waits are common to receive home-delivered meals from a crucial provider, Meals on Wheels, a network of 5,000 community-based programmes. In Memphis, for example, the wait to get on the Meals on Wheels schedule is more than a year long.
“It’s really sad because a meal is not an expensive thing,” said Sally Jones Heinz, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, which provides home-delivered meals in Memphis. “This shouldn’t be the way things are in 2019.”
Since malnutrition exacerbates diseases and prevents healing, seniors without steady, nutritious food can wind up in hospitals, which drives up Medicare and Medicaid costs, hitting taxpayers with an even bigger bill. Sometimes seniors relapse quickly after discharge — or worse.
Widower Robert Mukes, 71, starved to death on a cold December day in 2016, alone in his Cincinnati apartment.
The Hamilton County Coroner listed the primary cause of death as “starvation of unknown etiology” and noted “possible hypothermia,” pointing out that his apartment had no electricity or running water. Death records show the 5-foot-7-inch man weighed just 100.5 pounds.
As the Older Americans Act awaits reauthorisation this fall, many senior advocates worry about its funding.
In June, the US House passed a $93 million increase to the Older Americans Act’s nutrition programmes, raising total funding by about 10% to $1 billion in the next fiscal year. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that’s still less than in 2009. And it still has to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, where the proposed increase faces long odds.
US Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee, expects the panel to tackle legislation for reauthorization of the act soon after members return from the August recess. She’s now working with colleagues “to craft a strong, bipartisan update,” she said, that increases investments in nutrition programmes as well as other services.
“I’m confident the House will soon pass a robust bill,” she said, “and I am hopeful that the Senate will also move quickly so we can better meet the needs of our seniors.”
In the meantime, “the need for home-delivered meals keeps increasing every year,” said Lorena Fernandez, who runs a meal delivery programme in Yakima, Wash. Activists are pressing state and local governments to ensure seniors don’t starve, with mixed results. In Louisiana, for example, anti-hunger advocates stood on the state Capitol steps in May and unsuccessfully called on the state to invest $1 million to buy food from Louisiana farmers to distribute to hungry residents. Elsewhere, senior activists across the nation have participated each March in “March for Meals” events such as walks, fundraisers and rallies designed to focus attention on the problem.
Private fundraising hasn’t been easy everywhere, especially rural communities without much wealth. Philanthropy has instead tended to flow to hungry kids, who outnumber hungry seniors more than 2-to-1, according to Feeding America.
“Ten years ago, organisations had a goal of ending child hunger and a lot of innovation and resources went into what could be done,” said Jeremy Everett, executive director of Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative. “The same thing has not happened in the senior adult population.” And that has left people struggling for enough food to eat.
As for Milligan, he didn’t get back on Meals on Wheels before suffering complications related to his dialysis in June. He ended up back in the hospital. Ironically, it was there that he finally had a steady, if temporary, source of food.
It’s impossible to know if his time without steady, nutritious food made a difference. What is almost certain is that feeding him at home would have been far cheaper.
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