The hidden hungry

Shining a light on the growing problem of senior hunger

Story by Matthew Gonzales

Traditionally, the hunger fight focuses on children in developing countries or economically destitute people living in developed nations. While those groups need attention, another vulnerable group is experiencing food insecurity at an alarming rate, even as they live in the world’s richest countries: seniors.

In the United States and Canada, senior citizens are increasingly dependent on food banks and meal delivery services to meet their nutritional needs. According to a survey conducted by the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research, the number of U.S. seniors facing hunger risk rose from about 700,000 to 3 million between 2001 to 2007.


Food Banks Canada, which represents the Canadian food bank community, reports that the number of Canadian seniors helped by food banks went from 5.5 percent of adults served in 2009 to 7.2 percent of adults served in 2010—and that number doesn’t account for seniors who receive free or subsidized meals from community meal delivery programs.

Those on the front lines of the fight against senior hunger point to poverty, lack of mobility and prohibitive medical costs as the chief reasons for the growing senior hunger problem. Meanwhile, seniors who depend on retirement funds for living expenses have been hard-hit by the recent recession.

But perhaps the biggest issue facing hungry seniors is a lack of awareness that there’s a problem.

“It’s not a sexy issue,” Enid Borden, president of Meals on Wheels of America, says. “It’s not an issue that celebrities flock to, and it’s not an issue that most people think will ever affect them.”

However, as seniors in the United States and other developed countries outpace the population growth of other age groups, a growing number of people almost certainly will find themselves at risk for hunger at a time in their lives when they are physically and economically vulnerable.

sad old senior man

A disturbing picture

As the president of Meals on Wheels of America, Borden has seen the face of senior hunger firsthand, and it’s her goal to make sure others see it too.

“When we think of hunger, we tend to think of people in Third World countries,” she says. “My goal is to shed light on the hidden hungry—the ones behind closed doors. To me, it’s one of the biggest travesties there is.”

When asked about the perception that kids are the most vulnerable among the hungry in the United States, Borden doesn’t mince words in her response. “I don’t think kids are the most vulnerable. I think seniors are. Children generally have someone to care for them, whether it’s a parent, grandparent or other caretaker. A senior citizen may have no one who cares for them. So they are at everyone’s mercy, and therefore they are probably the most vulnerable among us.”

A native New Yorker, Borden is brash, outspoken and seemingly tireless in spreading her message—even though she herself is approaching senior status at age 62. She credits her energy to a passion rooted in personal experiences meeting American seniors who wonder where they’ll find their next meal. One of these encounters occurred roughly 10 years ago, when a trip to Pennsylvania with Meals on Wheels landed Borden in a trailer park in Appalachia.

“I was delivering a meal to a senior man named Al,” she says, “and his home was basically a tin can. Outside it, there was a hand-painted sign that read, ’God Bless America.’ Al and I spent some time talking, and I noticed a big, black hole in his arm. He looked at me and said, ‘I can’t afford to go to the doctor.’”

“I gave Al a meal, and I watched as he cut it up, ate part of it and then fed the rest of it to a stray dog and cat. That changed my life. And I think it tells the story of senior hunger in America better than statistics ever could.”

A problem without borders

While America may be one of the most visible battlegrounds in the fight against senior hunger, the problem is global. In Canada, statistics show a troubling rise in food insecurity among seniors. Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, says unmarried seniors are especially at risk.

Although most Canadian seniors receive income from the Canadian Pension Plan, it only covers housing and a limited amount of living expenses for single seniors, Schmidt says. “If you are living off the Guaranteed Income Supplement in Canada, that’s only about CAD$14,000 a year, which barely covers housing and basic needs.”

Canada has a tradition creating social safety nets for its most vulnerable citizens, but Schmidt is concerned that seniors may be falling through the cracks. “Many people in Canada think that once we get to an advanced age and we get access to the Guaranteed Income Supplement, we can depend on living comfortably, but that’s not exactly the case.”

“Whether you’re a Kiwanian or not, it takes all of us giving back to tackle this problem, and the sooner we realize that, the better off we’ll be as human beings.”

Bill Hall, executive director of the North Battleford Food Bank in Battleford, Saskatchewan, says seniors comprise about 15 percent of the people his food bank serves. Like Schmidt, he’s most concerned about those who are living alone—especially those who live in the remote rural communities surrounding Battleford.

“Even though in Canada we have really good support for seniors, they suffer when they don’t have a spouse or partner, because it limits their income,” Hall says. “The people who rent or who live in their own homes have a hard time keeping up as housing prices increase and taxes increase. And those are the seniors we usually see at the food bank.”

Hall also sees a disproportionate number of indigenous Canadian seniors at his food bank, many of whom live on government reserves. “Adding to the problem is a lot of aboriginal seniors are raising grandkids,” Hall says. “In some cases they may have several grandchildren at home, and that puts an added burden on them.”

While the presence of grandchildren in the house puts both American and Canadian seniors at a higher risk for food insecurity, the lack of adult children living nearby is another major risk factor for seniors who live alone.

“The distances we deal with in North America are huge,” Hall says. “For many seniors, their families are far, far away. Their kids may be living in Calgary, Vancouver or Montreal. They come home to visit, but in general, they aren’t around.”

Meal delivery volunteers are among the first to witness the escalating problem of senior hunger. Members of the Kiwanis Club of Ceilidh-Sydney Mines and North Sydney Golden K in Nova Scotia have been volunteering with Meals on Wheels for more than 22 years.
Not just a poor problem

In the United States, the states with the highest rates of food insecurity among seniors tend to have higher concentrations of African-Americans or Hispanics, higher concentrations of seniors living in poverty or near poverty, more disabled or unemployed seniors, more seniors with little education and more seniors living with grandchildren.

However, affluent areas aren’t immune to the problem. Sonoma County in California, world-famous for its wineries, was ranked one of the Top 200 Best Places for Business and Careers in 2007 by Forbes magazine. Yet in recent years, the local economy has taken a hit as housing prices have become prohibitive for many residents—especially seniors on fixed or limited incomes.

In a recent survey conducted by the Sonoma-based Council on Aging, which runs the area’s largest Meals on Wheels program, 43 percent of local Meals on Wheels clients reported depending on it for more than 50 percent of their meals. Eighteen percent said they depend on it for 75 percent of their daily consumption.

According to Jane Doroff, the director of Senior Nutrition at the Council on Aging, seniors in Sonoma are increasingly crippled by high housing costs. “The cost of living is so expensive that they have fewer resources at their disposal, so they are basically making choices like whether to purchase medication or purchase food,” she says. “So Meals on Wheels ends up becoming a critical component of their life. It’s very sad.”

With the global economy continuing to struggle and the senior population growing at an ever-faster rate, Doroff worries the future offers little room for optimism. “Twenty-five percent of Sonoma County is going to be 60 years old or older in the next five years,” she says. “With the sheer mass of Baby Boomers coming of age, we really need to acknowledge the fact that we are aging as a population. And we all need to pitch in to do something about it.”

A member of the Cloverdale, California, Kiwanis Club, Doroff has seen how important volunteers are to helping seniors overcome food insecurity and hunger. “The Kiwanis club I belong to is very willing to work with our local senior center Meals on Wheels program. Several of them drive Meals on Wheels routes in the community, and they also donate during Christmas time and other times throughout the year.”

Still, she hopes even more people will wake up to the senior hunger problem and recognize it as the serious and far-reaching problem that it is.

“Whether you’re a Kiwanian or not, it takes all of us giving back to tackle this problem,” she says. “And the sooner we realize that, the better off we’ll be as human beings.”

This story originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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