Not by bread alone
Elderly Americans face growing hunger—and not just for food
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Two days before fall officially begins, the Starbucks on Canal Street is serving hot cinnamon lattes, and by 9:30 a.m., the temperature is already heading to 92 degrees. It feels like summer in the French Quarter, as tourists munch on sugar-coated beignets at the famous Café Du Monde, and waiters on narrow streets post lunch menus that include fried alligator po-boys.
A few blocks from the French Quarter, though, the breakfast fare is not as fancy. A handful of locals are digging into Styrofoam containers full of baked spaghetti and hot green beans. This isn’t a New Orleans delicacy, but it is a weekly mercy to the few dozen people clustered on the side lawn of the Baptist Friendship House.
Some are homeless, and others struggle with addiction, but a handful have a condition that affects everyone who lives long enough, regardless of economic or social status: old age. More than 54 million people in the United States are over the age of 65, a number expected to nearly double by 2060.
Many senior citizens are thriving, but according to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, an estimated 5.2 million Americans over the age of 60 face some level of food insecurity—a term used to describe limited or uncertain access to an adequate amount of healthy food. The causes vary and often overlap: the rising cost of food, economic need, a lack of physical mobility, social isolation. A mix of complex reasons can make solutions complex too.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program—legislation aimed at supporting local nutrition services for senior citizens. Separate pieces of legislation have long funded programs for people across age ranges, including food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and school lunches for students who qualify.
Those programs can be helpful lifelines when administered wisely. But as the White House boosts funds for certain food programs by billions, a glimpse into the needs of senior citizens from a range of backgrounds offers a reminder that physical hunger is often related to relational hunger that can’t be satisfied with bread alone.
Joseph Von Behren, 60, says that’s why he’s here at a picnic table in New Orleans on a hot Tuesday morning eating spaghetti served by church volunteers. “I don’t really have anyone I can count on,” he says. “I come here to find the good people.”
THE GOOD PEOPLE he’s met at the Baptist Friendship House include Kay Bennett, who has served as a missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention here in New Orleans for nearly 35 years.
On Tuesday mornings that service includes a hot meal for any who seek it. Bennett says senior citizens are regular visitors at the center. On this steamy Tuesday morning, some have walked down the street from nearby apartments for low-income seniors.
New Orleans has more than its share of problems. Bennett has seen hurricanes nearly destroy the city, and poverty and crime cripple whole neighborhoods. But she’s also helped spearhead disaster relief after storms and build programs aimed at helping women and children facing homelessness.
In the last several years, she’s also seen firsthand the effects of human trafficking. Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, and major sporting arenas draw tourists, but such crowded events also bring clients to sex traffickers.
Even with such high-profile challenges in the city, Bennett says sometimes the most pressing needs can be everyday tasks for ordinary people. Elderly neighbors drop by the office and ask: Could you help me figure out my prescriptions? Would you help me look up my bank balance? Could you help me check on my Social Security payments?
Some seniors aren’t tech savvy enough to navigate online accounts; others have no one they trust to help them access financial information. Sometimes, it’s both. “And sometimes,” Bennett says, “I think they just need to feel like someone cares about them.” That includes spiritual care, and some gather at the ministry for Bible studies on Thursday nights.
Bennett often meets elderly people who don’t have a network of family or friends nearby, and after the pandemic began easing, the needs she encountered during some visits ran deep. “I listened, and I listened, and I listened,” she says. “They had been so isolated for so long—they really just needed somebody to hear them.”
The ministry has witnessed how simple isolation can sometimes lead seniors to complicated despair. Kendall Wolz, a staffer at the Baptist ministry, recounts the story of a man living in the senior apartments nearby who attended a health fair the ministry hosted for local residents.
He expressed frustration over his inability to figure out the right steps to get a set of dentures and said he was waiting on a government agency to step up. As his frustration deepened, his depression grew. He spoke about wanting to end his life. One afternoon, he left a garbled message on the ministry’s voicemail, and the staff learned he’d been hospitalized.
Wolz said they went to visit, and “you could tell it just meant the world. … Just to have somebody who cared.” As he got the help he needed, he also reconnected with a son who lived in another city.
A few months later, he showed up at another event hosted by the ministry, and he had a request. He had some extra food stamps and said he wanted to go to the grocery store to buy food for other people at the ministry who needed help.
For the elderly, isolation can mean the difference between life and death. Last year, five people died in senior apartments around New Orleans after Hurricane Ida swept through, triggering widespread power outages and flooding. Local news stations reported that some of the elderly didn’t have enough food and water and were trapped on upper floors in the sweltering heat.
THANKFULLY, SEVERE HUNGER and malnutrition from lack of access to food is rare in the United States, but a half century ago that wasn’t the case.
A 1968 CBS documentary called Hunger in America stunned many viewers with images and stories of Americans suffering from serious hunger and malnutrition in four different regions of the country. Scenes from a San Antonio pediatric hospital unit showed babies in rows of cribs, their ribs exposed. Some at nearly a year old weighed only a few pounds. Three wards were full of babies admitted because of malnutrition and diarrhea.
Interviews with families living in pockets of poverty in parts of Virginia, Alabama, and Arizona revealed tough conditions: Kids regularly missing meals. Parents going without eating to try to feed their children.
The next year, President Richard Nixon convened a White House conference on food, nutrition, and health. He called the problem of significant malnutrition “embarrassing and intolerable” in a country that produced enough food for its population. Government programs like food stamps and free school lunches already existed, but Nixon greatly expanded them and boosted emergency aid for pregnant mothers and babies.
Nixon didn’t eradicate hunger, but over the next half century, severe hunger and malnutrition did drop dramatically.
Fifty years later, President Joe Biden held his own White House conference on hunger. This fall, Biden called for another expansion of food stamps—this on top of last year’s largest permanent increase to benefits in the program’s history.
But ironically, another nutrition-related malady now plagues many Americans, including some receiving government assistance: More than 42 percent of American adults qualify as obese. Some experts advocate adding to food programs nutrition standards designed to limit the purchase of sugary drinks and foods that worsen obesity and diabetes.
That specific proposal wasn’t on the menu at Biden’s fall conference, though he did propose incentivizing the purchase of fruits and vegetables. He also advocated more federal spending in addition to the 25 percent increase last year.
Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) says it made sense to increase benefits at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid widespread business closures, many families saw their income plummet or even vanish due to reduced work hours or job loss. But Rachidi disputes reports that hunger rates doubled during the last two years. AEI’s research indicates that food insecurity likely increased by about 2 to 3 percent during the pandemic.
But for elderly people, the situation can be more complex. For those who don’t work anymore and live on a fixed income, soaring inflation can make purchasing food especially daunting.
Rising food prices have outpaced soaring inflation, hitting 13.5 percent. The cost of eggs rose by 40 percent. Bread and cereal products are up 16.4 percent. Food pantries report struggling to keep up with demand as more people line up than before.
Some government programs provide funds for groups to deliver meals to seniors at home. But even those programs sometimes can’t reach those who need them because older citizens can have trouble connecting with people who can help.
“The federal government is good at transferring money,” Rachidi said. “But it’s really up to families and local communities to make sure that aging populations can get access.”
FOLLOW THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER north from New Orleans, and after a few hundred miles you’ll see signs for Graceland and barbecue joints on the way into Memphis, Tenn.
At 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, such tourist destinations aren’t on Rosalyn Nichols’ mind. Instead, she’s got food on the front burner. She’s loading up her car with plastic-wrapped trays of hot chicken stew and cartons of cold chocolate milk for nearby neighbors.
Nichols is the interfaith officer for the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), a Memphis organization. In a city with a historically high poverty rate, MIFA is located in the poorest zip code of all. In the 1960s, faith leaders had discussed launching an interfaith ministry. Then in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, spurring the faith leaders to action. They founded MIFA five months after MLK’s death. The ministry now operates a range of programs to serve lower-income residents. That includes operating the city’s Meals on Wheels, a federally funded program that delivers meals to senior citizens with financial or physical needs, or both.
The U.S. government funds about one-third of the cost for Meals on Wheels programs across the country, and local organizations cover remaining costs using a blend of government and private funding that varies by city.
Here in Memphis, a local government agency screens applicants for the program and refers them to MIFA. Three days a week, workers contracted by a food services company cook and package thousands of meals for residents across the city. About 20 paid drivers deliver meals, but MIFA also depends on volunteers to make the rounds on routes around town.
On this last day of summer, Nichols taps an address into her GPS system and talks about her job coordinating churches and other groups to send volunteers to help with the program.
Though many clients live in low-income neighborhoods, Nichols says people might be surprised to learn some live in more affluent areas. Without nearby family or a network of friends, they sometimes ask to be added to the list. Other times, a family member in another city might ask MIFA to deliver meals just so that a friendly face in ministry—instead of, say, a Grub Hub driver—will be in regular contact with an aging loved one.
Isolation might stem from adult children moving from their hometowns to other cities or elderly adults losing regular touch with loved ones. The death of a spouse is a common reality of aging, and another trend has contributed to loneliness as well: The divorce rate of Americans over 50 has doubled since 1990.
Whatever the case, some elderly people find themselves alone or in need of extra help.
On a side street fronting a stretch of small homes, Nichols walks up onto a porch and rings the doorbell. From inside, a high, cheerful voice calls out, “I’m coming!” Moments later, a tiny older woman opens the door, wearing a smile and a purple T-shirt that says, “With God all things are possible.”
Nichols greets her and extends the small tray of food, with a piece of cornbread and a carton of milk on top. The older lady holds onto her door frame for a moment and explains, “I have a little bit of trouble walking.” When she takes the tray from Nichols’ hand, a wide smile breaks across her face: “And it’s hot too!”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she says. “You have just blessed my day.”
Gratitude spilled from many doorways Nichols visited that day around Memphis. The interactions usually didn’t last long, but the simple thanks offered seemed heartfelt.
Volunteers are an important part of such interactions, and local churches are an important source of volunteers. Nichols says she’s been encouraged to see volunteers come from a wide variety of local congregations: “There’s not a prototype, which is really wonderful. We’ve got Reformed, we’ve got conservative, we’ve got liberal,” she says. “They just come together with the focus that hungry people need to be fed.”
Memphis is a city with many needs, and this summer it was a city that saw many sorrows. A spate of violent crimes in a short stretch made national news, including the kidnapping and brutal murder of 34-year-old mother and schoolteacher Eliza Fletcher, who’d been out on an early morning jog.
Other forms of crime are on the rise too, including a 46 percent spike in carjackings over the last year. Even MIFA hasn’t escaped unscathed. Earlier in the summer, while a volunteer couple in their 70s were delivering a meal to a MIFA client, a gunman carjacked them, then drove to their home and stole their other vehicle. Less than two weeks later, a man with a knife carjacked a MIFA staffer on a delivery route.
It’s a tough environment to recruit volunteers, and the organization had already seen a dip since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But Nichols says she’s also encouraged to see a committed group of regular volunteers determined to continue: “They decided they weren’t going to back away from what is fundamentally ministry.”
Such high-profile challenges in Memphis could overshadow the unseen challenges facing ordinary, elderly citizens in their homes every day. “We can go our whole lives and never see any of these people,” Nichols says.
Ephie Johnson of the Neighborhood Christian Center says a similar drive motivates her organization’s work in Memphis. Though primarily focused on programs to help families break cycles of poverty, the ministry also serves those who find themselves in poverty late in life.
The group delivers meals to elderly citizens through a partnership with a government agency in town, and Johnson says they see similar situations: elderly people with few connections to family on a regular basis. Some are renters, some are retired trade workers, some are homeowners who find it hard to make ends meet on a fixed income.
During one midmorning stop, a 61-year-old West Virginia native stood on the porch of the home he owns in Memphis. He said he can’t afford electricity, so he’s using a camping stove to cook, and he says the box of food items that volunteers from the center deliver helps him survive. “I’m just getting by,” he says. “But they keep a smile on my face.”
Johnson says the organization hews to the Biblical mandate to address the underlying causes of poverty over the course of a lifetime, while also treating with compassion those who still need help later. “We believe the Lord has called us to not only serve the orphans, but also the widows of our community,” she says. “That’s why we’re adamant that we find ways to connect with them.”
ANOTHER BASIC BIBLICAL TEACHING animates a Christian view of ministry to the elderly: It’s not good for man to be alone.
Secular entities recognize that basic reality too. In 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May identified loneliness as a national crisis, and she appointed the country’s first official “minister for loneliness.”
A 2020 study published by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., detailed the health risks of social isolation and loneliness for older adults, including a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia: “Social isolation has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes.”
Benjamin Pyykkonen, the director of clinical psychology programs at Wheaton College, says we are “hardwired for social engagement” and that studies have shown how “profoundly detrimental” isolation can be to overall well-being for older people: “I believe that there’s a lot of opportunity within the church to meet that very significant need.”
Back in New Orleans, staffers at Baptist Friendship House keep seeking to meet those needs on Tuesday mornings, and they also plan to spread a table for a Thanksgiving meal for their neighbors who might need company as much as food.
Kay Bennett, who has seen many people come and go over the last 35 years of ministry, says meals open a door for the gospel as well and says she wants the folks in the neighborhood to know: “You’ve got a family.”
—Jamie Dean is a journalist and former national editor at WORLD Magazine
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