Each weeknight, Sylvia Mason walks the half mile from her apartment to the community center in downtown Issaquah for dinner. Her car broke down in December, and with her artificial knee and bad hip she needs to use a cane.
But she hasn't missed a hot meal in years, and over that time she's gotten to know other regulars who come for a similar reason: Their fixed incomes only go so far.
Mason, 67, retired more than a decade ago from her job at a medical diagnostics lab. She receives Social Security plus Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. She lives in low-income housing owned by the King County Housing Authority where the monthly rent jumped $35 last year. The free dinners allow her to pay for other necessities, including rent and medication.
"I come here to feed myself," she said. "I only get $16 a month in food stamps, and $16 doesn't go very far."
The Issaquah Meals program has been feeding the hungry for at least 20 years. It serves approximately two to three dozen people a night. Most are 35 to 54; some are homeless. But when the coordinators recently noticed an uptick in older visitors, they conducted a survey and found that one in five patrons was over 60.
"Because they're living on fixed incomes, it can be very difficult," said Eileen Rasnack, manager of the Issaquah Meals program, part of Catholic Community Services. "Food can sometimes be at the bottom of the list."
Recent studies have found that hunger and lack of access to regular meals are growing problems among older people. In Washington, 5 percent of those 65 and older are at risk of hunger, according to Meals on Wheels.
And while the number of Washingtonians receiving nutrition assistance has doubled since 2005, a Food Research and Action Center survey found that 18 percent of Washington households didn't have enough money for food last year.
Nationally more than 5 million people over 60 experienced some form of food insecurity, Meals on Wheels reports.
The risks are greater among African Americans, Hispanics and those with limited incomes. Meanwhile, donations to food banks and food pantries have declined while visits from hungry people are rising.
"That's staggering when you think about it," said Cheryl Reed, AARP Washington outreach director. "We thought we should do something collectively to address this issue."
As part of its Create the Good community service effort, AARP Washington is encouraging members who participate in free AARP events—such as financial advice seminars—to bring five cans of food, donate $5, or volunteer for five hours at a food bank. AARP will forward the donations to programs such as Meals on Wheels and Northwest Harvest. To find the food bank nearest you, the Feeding America website allows users to search for local food banks by ZIP code.
On a recent night at the Issaquah Meals program, more than 30 needy people trickle in for fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, salad, oranges and brownies, plus lemonade and coffee. Most are young, including a shy teen with a skateboard, while others are homeless or jobless, or struggling with addictions or mental illness.
After everyone receives a first helping, they're invited to eat seconds or take some food with them. Most of the younger people hoist their backpacks and leave. Mason stays to clean up and chat with a few of the other older guests, including Roy Anderson, who has been eating his dinners here for three years.
"There are times you get short on everything. These meals provide something that's essential," Anderson said.
To find upcoming events where you can donate food, or to volunteer, visit the AARP Washington website.
Neal Thompson is an author and freelance writer living in Seattle.