The Lean Years

Are hungry seniors falling through the cracks in Tucson?

They are the people you do not see: the elderly poor, sequestered in ratty apartments or battered trailers or bleak hovels across town. Every day, they must decide between food, rent, prescriptions or utility bills. Too often, food comes last.

They are the hungry seniors among us. And as baby boomers age, their ranks will only swell.

Today, trappings of that privation fill a snug storage room in downtown's Armory Park Center, where Robin McArdle-Landers is sorting through emergency food bags.

As the center's supervisor, each week, she sees hungry folks or their helpers alight here, hoping for enough food to get by. The bags come directly from the Community Food Bank, and they're loaded with staples--corn flakes, rice, beans, macaroni and cheese, canned vegetables.

For many, these Armory Center rations are life-savers. But many more elderly may be falling through the cracks, simply because they don't know such help is available.

"We distribute about 200 to 250 bags of food on Wednesday and Thursday mornings," says McArdle-Landers. "And there could be a lot more need out there. But there is a great lack of awareness about this within the Tucson community and probably nationally."

Here at Armory, assistance also goes beyond emergency food bags. This bustling senior center delivers meals to the homebound, and the cheery dining room is filled with a chatty afternoon crowd.

These are faces of the fortunate, says McArdle-Landers. "I'm not so worried about the folks here, because they're doing OK. I worry about the ones out there in the community, where no one's knocking on their doors "

There are many reasons why seniors go hungry, even when help is available. Many live in isolation, or lack transportation. But the problem spreads far beyond Southern Arizona, says Scott Parkin, spokesman for the National Council on Aging in Washington, D.C.

In an e-mail to the Weekly, Parkin lists numerous state and federal safety nets for seniors, from food stamps and elderly nutrition programs to home delivered meals. "But about 60 percent of those who qualify for federal and state programs like these nationwide have not enrolled," he writes.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hunger is a problem for more than 750,000 Americans age 65 or older. And among states, Arizona has the 12th-highest number of poverty-stricken seniors.

The topic was the focus of a recent report by the Urban Institute, also in based in Washington, D.C. In a random survey of 3,500 households with at least once senior, and in direct interviews with 4,000 more elderly people, researchers found that those most at risk for hunger had difficulty eating due to health problems. Or they suffered a shortage of storage space or freezers.

Among the world's 19 industrialized countries, the United States nearly tops the list for the number of elderly citizens living in poverty. And additional research by the Center on Hunger and Poverty reveals that one out of two elderly Americans will at least temporarily live at or near the poverty line.

In Tucson, that translates to many hungry senior citizens, scattered across the community. But the biggest hurdle to assisting them is simply making contact. To overcome that challenge, outreach coordinators from the Community Food Bank, and from senior centers such as Armory, routinely visit community events and churches.

At the same time, officials from several city departments are beefing up their coordination efforts. For instance, if firemen on emergency calls see problems with elderly residents, they can contact senior centers or other social agencies, which then dispatch outreach workers to the home.

Meanwhile, the sheer volume of food already funneled through Armory and other city centers offer a glimpse of the vast need. It's also reflected in McArdle-Landers' shifting job description; when she started with the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department years ago, her duties were heavy on organizing field trips and special events for seniors. These days, the bulk of her time is spent making sure they get fed.

That work doesn't come cheap. Tucson's various centers received $378,000 in outside funds--state and federal--for meals and deliveries to the homebound. The city kicks in another $189,900, plus the use of delivery vans.

Those funds help Amory Park serve about 21,000 meals from its kitchen each year. Of those, 7,500 go to the homebound elderly in the downtown area. The meals are delivered Monday through Friday, with extra food for weekends.

Another crucial link is the Community Food Bank, where Joy Tucker oversees the Food Plus Program. Food Plus distributes commodities provided by the federal government, which range from tuna and pasta to cheese. Tucker's staff serves 3,600 people a month. Of those, 700 are homebound seniors. And the numbers are rising. "We're now giving out about 9,000 bags a month," she says, "where before, we were at 6,000 or 7,000 a month."

Reasons for that increase are numerous, says Tucker. But among seniors, the prime culprit may be expensive prescriptions. "That's what we usually hear--that it's because of the cost of medications. They're on a very fixed income; they have medical bills; they've got prescriptions they need to fill; and they have to skimp on food. So they need this food in order to survive."

At the same time, some federal programs aren't as helpful as they might be. For instance, "you hear that many seniors don't apply for food stamps," she says. "They have to fill out this huge application, and then they only get $10 or $12."

Like the Armory Center, the food bank extends efforts across the valley, working with the Arizona Department of Economic Security and the Pima County Health Department. "A lot of it is also word of mouth," Tucker says. "The health department does some outreach, but it's really hard to get to some shut-ins.

Even as those efforts intensify, funding isn't keeping pace. Nutrition programs such as the one at Armory Park are funded by Congress under the Older Americans Act. But instead of growing, OAA funding in 2006 dropped by 2 percent from the year before, and has remained flat through 2007.

Meanwhile, the number of elderly Americans is skyrocketing. According to the Center on Hunger and Poverty, 35 million of us were age 65 and older in 2000. But within 30 years, that number is expected to double.

In other words, the need is obvious--and becoming more urgent by the day. "For 10 years. we've been talking about the fact that the baby boomers are coming," says. McArdle-Landers. "Well, that day has come."

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