Nadine Devlin was a nurse for 25 years and has taken care of her mother, her son and her 3-year-old grandson. In her eyes, she was the rock on which her family could stand.
"I never thought I'd get sick. I'd been a caregiver all my life, and I never thought I'd be in the same situation," said Devlin, 61, of Homestead.
See also: SNAP primer: What are the benefits?
But two years ago, after battling cancer and other health issues, she had to go on Social Security disability, which pays $846 a month, not nearly enough to cover the bills. She applied for food stamps but didn't qualify. Last summer, a friend persuaded her to stop by the food bank in Homestead, an aging, hardscrabble steel town in the Monongahela Valley.
She did so reluctantly.
"I asked, 'Is this legal? Because I don't want to break any laws,' " Devlin said. "I'd rather starve than break a law."
Now Devlin visits the Rainbow Kitchen Food Pantry on the second Wednesday of each month where "we get canned goods, sometimes paper products, eggs, a pound of margarine, a box of cereal. And, recently, they gave us a bag of frozen potatoes, fish and chicken legs, which was nice."
Food insecurity knows no age, race or region. It is driven by the economy. More people need help from pantries, food banks and child nutrition programs. In Pennsylvania, roughly 2.5 million people — including 700,000 who are 60 and older — are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Of those older people, only about one in five has applied for the benefit.
The troubled economy has put a strain on the network of charitable food providers. "There is increased demand and decreased supply," said Joe Quattrocchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center. "People who used to give a bag now need a bag."
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank serves 18,000 seniors a month. "Some have had to make choices between paying for food or medicine," said Iris Valanti, its communications director.
AARP volunteers throughout Pennsylvania work closely with agencies such as Just Harvest in Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center in Harrisburg and Benefits Data Trust in Philadelphia to help people apply for SNAP and other income-related benefits.