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Journalist's Notebook: What Hunger Looks Like in America

"Most people I met seemed to see their predicament as a fact of life, not as part of a national crisis."

For America, the world's wealthiest country, the numbers are startling:

  • More than 6 million Americans age 60 and older have trouble getting enough to eat.
  • Another 3 million Americans in their 50s sometimes go hungry as well.
  • Many hungry older Americans are unwilling or reluctant to ask for help. Only 30 percent of people age 60 and older who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which replaced food stamps, participate.

Watch the Hungry in America documentary series. >>

But the numbers don't put a face on hunger. That's what our four-part documentary series, "Hungry in America," set out to do.

Journalist Jon Miller was the chief correspondent for two of those segments. For him, the biggest revelation over months of research, travel, writing and producing those stories was that hunger had become, for many older Americans, a quiet fact of life.

Miller spoke with us about some of the things he saw and people he met.

What surprised you most about how hunger affects older Americans?

I was surprised at how normal it seemed, and I don't mean normal in a good way. Every day, millions of people are visiting food pantries, eating at community centers or churches, receiving meals at their homes. These are our relatives, our friends, our neighbors. But it all happens so quietly. It's not like the problem is secret or hidden; it's that we take it for granted. Most of the people I met seemed to see their predicament as a fact of life, not as part of a national crisis.

Local, state and federal governments have all responded, and even provided some solutions, like the federal government's SNAP program. What are some of the limits of what government can do?

Clearly work needs to done on big-picture issues like wages, job security, housing, health care, immigration and education. If government doesn't deal with those, we'll never get a handle on poverty and hunger.

But there's also an enormous amount of work to be done at the local and neighborhood and even individual level. There are some really exciting things going on around the country, from community gardens to healthy eating campaigns to initiatives involving restaurants and grocery stores. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of volunteers who unload trucks, fill boxes, deliver meals or donate food or money.

Some of the people you interviewed who are having trouble getting enough to eat mentioned being ashamed of their situations. Were many people reluctant to talk to you?

People were generally very open. But the shame issue is important. It's one of the reasons so many seniors don't take advantage of the SNAP program or other services. In our society, when we're going through hard times it can sometimes be hard to know whether we have failed or the system has failed us. We tend to blame ourselves for our troubles, even when they may be driven by forces beyond our control.

In a country where some farmers sell much of what they harvest overseas, why are there so many hungry people here? Is the entire system just broken?

I'm not an expert, but one thing that is crystal clear is that the hunger problem in America has nothing to do how much food we produce or where we sell it. It has to do with poverty, access and education. Roughly one in seven Americans is poor — that's an appalling number in a country with so many resources and so much wealth.

What can one person do to make a difference? Isn't the thought of 6 million hungry seniors just paralyzing?

There are so many ways to make a difference. I was inspired by Vel Scott, a retired businesswoman in Cleveland who teaches low-income seniors how to cook tasty, healthy food. She's relentlessly positive, and she's not afraid to get her hands dirty. I was inspired by Nancy Hueske, who quit a fancy job in corporate marketing to work at the North Texas Food Bank. I loved watching her break down people's fear of the SNAP bureaucracy.

You don't need to be a social worker or an expert to get involved. Just sitting with people, talking with them, helping them shovel snow or fix a broken stove or car or phone or air conditioner — those sorts of things aren't just neighborly, they can save lives.

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