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Vulnerable Florida Seniors Going Hungry

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File photo of a senior citizen receiving a meal from Meals on Wheels (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

File photo of a senior citizen receiving a meal from Meals on Wheels (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Hundreds of homebound senior citizens are on a waiting list for hot meals and a bit of conversation.

Unable to prepare food for themselves, they qualify for the daily Meals on Wheels service that is provided to thousands of fellow seniors across Northeast Florida. But because of declining federal funding, they must wait until spots open.

Willie Harris, 74, who lives on the Northside, is one of the 600 people on Duval County’s Meals on Wheels waiting list. She has a host of medical problems that hamper her ability to prepare meals, much less get to a grocery store.

“I’ve been sick and I can’t cook,” she said.

For now, her son and a friend bring her meals. She said she hopes to at least become one of the Meals on Wheels clients who receive several frozen meals two to three times a week.

“It would help me out,” Harris said.

The situation echoes a recent national report that placed Florida as the state with the ninth highest percentage, 16.64 percent, of people ages 60 and older who are going hungry.

“Unfortunately, I would say our area of Florida is not keeping up with senior hunger, and that some seniors in our community remain at significant risk for hunger,” said Teresa K. Barton, executive director of Aging True, formerly Cathedral Foundation of Jacksonville, which runs the Duval County Meals on Wheels program and feeds about 1,000 seniors daily.

“We are struggling to maintain the levels of feeding that we currently have, with little improvement on the horizon,” Barton said.

Based on telephone screening, the people on the waiting list qualify for delivered meal because they are homebound and isolated. They have no one living with them to prepare a hot daily meal and are unable to prepare a meal for themselves, she said.

But Barton said Aging True does not have the financial resources to expand its existing Meals on Wheels rolls. Fuel and food costs have risen and public funds and donations have declined, as has volunteer recruitment.

“We are not keeping pace with the growth in our population, specifically, the growth in senior population,” she said. “Our goal remains to eliminate the entire wait list and provide meals to every isolated, hungry senior in our community, but we are less close to that goal today than we were five years ago.”

Seniors face threat

As of the 2010 Census, there were 40.3 million people in the U.S ages 65 and older, with 3.4 million in Florida. About 105,000 of them are in Northeast Florida, 82,000 in Duval County, according to Barton.

Nationwide, about 8.3 million seniors face the threat of hunger, a 78 percent increase since 2001 and a 34 percent increase since the start of the recession in 2007, according to the Senior Hunger Report Card. The Report Card evaluated the nation’s performance in reducing food insecurity and eradicating hunger and gave the U.S. an overall grade of F.

Since 2009, the risk of hunger for the overall U.S. population has declined, while food insecurity increased among those age 60 and older — primarily among the near-poor, with income one to two times the poverty level, according to the Report Card. More than 1 in 7 seniors is threatened by hunger, compared with 1 in 9 seniors in 2005.

“There is no question that we are failing our seniors, some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” Enid A. Borden, chief executive of the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation, said in a news release. “No one in this, the richest nation on Earth, should face the threat of hunger, no one. And seniors, who have little power to change their circumstances, deserve our special attention.”

The seniors who are Meals on Wheels clients rely on the service.

“I’d miss it if I didn’t have it,” said Arminda Harris on the Northside, as Meals on Wheels employee drivers Sharron Neal and Shalindell Wilson delivered her lunch one day last week.

For a little over a year, Meals on Wheels has brought her a hot lunch in a tray, with a muffin, banana, carton of orange juice and the day’s newspaper.

“It’s the healthiest meal she eats all day,” said her son, Jerome Duffy. “It helps her a lot, especially at the end of the month when her bills get pretty heavy. … It’s just there when she needs it.”

Funding is down

Funding for such senior programs as Meals on Wheels has declined in recent years, even as the senior population has increased. Aging True’s current Meals on Wheels budget is $1.5 million, which is 13 percent lower than two years ago, according to program director Nicole Kirkpatrick.

Like Aging True, the Councils on Aging in Clay and Nassau counties not only have waiting lists but have been forced to reduce the number of meals they provide to current clients, according to their administrators.

Clay delivered 54,383 meals to homebound seniors in 2009, 41,393 in 2011, said executive director Al Rizer. Nassau currently has 75 homebound Meals on Wheels clients, with 65 on the waiting list. But executive director Tom Moss said the agency will be “cutting back on the number of meals” clients get each week.

The Florida Department Elder Affairs has said additional government funding is not on the horizon, Rizer said.

“We’ve raised that issue. We’re told, ‘You need to get more creative in how you raise money. Have fundraisers, go to donors,’?” he said.

Local fundraising will be critical.

“There is very little doubt that the number of seniors requiring all our services, including Meals on Wheels, will increase as the baby boomers start entering the pipeline,” said Nassau’s Moss. “Funding increases seem unlikely. That is why it is so important we find additional ways to generate dollars here locally.”

Maybe things would be different if the lawmakers who control federal purse strings were on Meals on Wheels waiting lists, said Cathy Brown, executive director of the St. Johns County Council on Aging.

“The future is grim if the political process plays out with cuts in federal subsidies. Sadly those decisions are made by politicians with full bellies,” she said.

The St. Johns nonprofit delivers meals daily to 300 seniors, with another 250 on a waiting list.

“We are in continual fundraising mode in order to mitigate the wait list,” she said. “I’ve never missed a meal, have you? Yet those on the wait list ‘get by’ best they can, awaiting a nutritious meal.”

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