Hunger pangs: When groceries are a luxury, and aid groups can’t keep up

Dottie Sines comes face to face with an underappreciated problem every day: hunger. The wellness nutrition director for the Aroostook Agency on Aging remembers one woman who nearly lost her house after her husband had to close his business and enter a nursing home. So she went without food.

She remembers another person in The County who lost money through a scam and went without fuel for a month before telling someone.

If you didn’t have money, would you choose food or heat?

In another instance, an elderly woman was caring for her husband who had escalating Alzheimer’s. She had to be with him at all times and was unable to afford outside care. In addition to respite, she needed something basic: food.

In Maine, about 14.9 percent of households, or 200,000 people, are food insecure, meaning they don’t have enough food at all times to live a healthy life, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rate has grown 50 percent since 2004.

Maine ranks first in New England and 17th in the nation for the prevalence of hunger among the elderly, which stands at about 5.5 percent of seniors. It’s thought many more households with seniors do not report their unmet need or are on the edge of being food insecure. The Maine Gerontological Society estimates one out of every eight Maine seniors suffers from hunger or the threat of hunger.

Dixie Shaw, program director of hunger and relief services of Catholic Charities Maine in Caribou, discussed the problem before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging on March 5. In describing Aroostook County to the panel of senators, she mentioned how it is larger than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined yet has only 70,000 people.

“Yes, it probably is true what they say about us, that we have more moose than people. However, sometimes I think the moose eat better than some of our elderly and struggling families,” she said.

Hunger is a symptom of larger economic problems. (In 2012, 41 percent of households with incomes below the federal poverty line were food insecure.) The Maine Development Foundation acknowledged the important economic indicator when it decided this year, for the first time, to include food insecurity as part of its annual Measures of Growth report, which was released Tuesday. The report tracks certain statistics over time and sets goals for where the state should be positioned.

It found the cost of food insecurity in Maine is about $787 million per year when considering costs associated with poor health, lowered educational attainment and earnings, and the value of charitable contributions given to fight hunger.

Hunger persists throughout the country. Five years ago, the USDA discovered that more households nationwide in 2008 were suffering from a lack of food than at any time since the government began tracking the data. The number had spiked 32 percent in one year, surprising even anti-poverty advocates.

The recession has ended, but the prevalence of hunger has not. In fact, it hasn’t budged from the 2008 level of about 14.5 percent. The hunger rate and trend is similar in Maine: The problem has only gotten worse in the last decade.

Maine has many organizations working to ease the hunger pangs of residents. In addition to a network of food banks, food pantries and 100 meal centers, Meals on Wheels delivers free packaged meals to people who are homebound. People can get them if they are age 60 or older, or younger and disabled.

The Aroostook Agency on Aging manages Meals on Wheels for The County. This year it’s planning to serve 34,000 meals at senior dining centers and deliver 48,000 meals to older people who are homebound in about 17 towns.

In total the agency is serving about 20,000 fewer meals than just six years ago, and it has cut back on the regularity with which it drops off food, even though the population has only gotten older and the economic situation worse, Executive Director Steve Farnham said.

The agency has managed to keep its overall funding levels relatively stable. When it got hit with a 16 percent federal funding loss because of sequestration last year, the John T. Gorman Foundation stepped in to fill most of the hole with a $25,000 grant. Though it was a “godsend,” Farnham said, overall funding for the program hasn’t kept pace with need and increased costs.

“The program’s been stagnant for years and years,” he said.

Still, residents have dedicated thousands of volunteer efforts and dollars to the cause. Recipients of meals donate money to help cover costs; hunters donate meat through the Hunters for the Hungry program; schoolchildren collect used clothes and shoes to sell to raise money for feeding programs; local farmers give away their produce; residents volunteer to wash and cut it up, so arthritic hands don’t have to; and volunteers drive to deliver it to those who have trouble leaving their homes due to illness or physical inability, or who don’t have family nearby to help.

“What we see is a disproportionate number of elderly in need of food. When they have limited financial resources, any setback or unexpected expense can throw everything off,” Shaw said in her testimony. “Even the more well-off elderly can oftentimes be one setback from the luxury of buying groceries. I shudder when I say ‘luxury of buying groceries,’ but again it is the one, and oftentimes the only, place they can control their costs. They do without.”



Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.