Despite living in a well-groomed suburban Houston neighborhood, Robert Hayes still needed emergency food aid from Braes Interfaith Ministries.
"I worry where my next meal is coming from and think about food day in, day out," said Hayes, 59, a retired truck driver and disabled Vietnam war veteran whose wife was laid off as a hairdresser last year. "The last week or two of the month are the worst, because I'm counting days till we run out of food and my disability check arrives."
The groceries from the Braes food pantry, available twice a month, help bridge the gap. He has also applied for food stamps.
Hayes often must make a choice he never imagined: between food and housing, as 42 percent of other needy Texans do, and utilities, as 53 percent do, according to a study by Feeding America.
"It's very depressing to ask for help and it's hard to lose your independence," Hayes said. "I never thought money would be this tight. I thought at this age, I'd be able to sit back, travel and enjoy life."
In a state famous for living large, even the hunger crisis is outsize: Texas has the nation's fourth highest hunger rate for people over 50 — 8.9 percent, exceeded only by Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina. The national average is 5.7 percent, a Meals on Wheels study said.
The rate of food insecurity, defined by the federal government as uncertain access to enough food for a healthy life, grew by a third statewide last year. Half of the hungry are Hispanic or African American.
Food banks provide emergency aid for almost 3 million Texans a year.
It takes Bertha Stout, 55, an hour and two bus lines to reach her downtown Houston destination: the Emergency Aid Coalition, where she will wait in line to receive a tuna sandwich and a piece of fruit.
"I've been working so much my whole life and ask myself, 'How did I get here?' It's humiliating," says Stout, a home health care provider who is scrambling for new clients to help pay the bills. "The economy is so bad … but the bills keep coming."
Stout said she was at a grocery store recently and realized her food stamps had run out — only after her groceries were rung up. "I was so embarrassed and I could feel the grocery's clerk's eyes on me as the people in line behind me grumbled."
She quickly chose three items to sacrifice. "I decided meat was my first choice to keep."
"We've seen a significant number of solidly middle-class people who never thought they'd be asking for help," said Brian Greene, president of Houston Food Bank. "They lost a job and couldn't make ends meet due to fixed expenses they couldn't escape."
Of older Texans who receive home-delivered meals, 37 percent say that Meals on Wheels allows them to remain in their own homes.
"They've worked all their lives and through no fault of their own need help," said Carolyn Mead, 70, a retired county appraiser who delivers groceries to homebound older folks. "I think how fortunate I am to have my health and an ample retirement income. Otherwise, it could be me."
At a time of year when most people look forward to holiday tables laden with food, hunger doesn't take a holiday.
"No gift is too small," said North Texas Food Bank CEO Jan Pruitt. "A dollar will make a difference: That's three to six meals, depending on the community."
Volunteers contributed 600,000 hours to food banks last year, said Barbara Anderson, director of the Texas Food Bank Network. "They enable us to spend more money on food and getting food to people. I don't know what we'd do without volunteers."
You're never too old to help: The winner of the Meals on Wheels volunteer award this year is John Gill, 95, of Tarrant County.
In San Antonio, volunteers can help prepare and serve what is billed as the world's largest Thanksgiving dinner, said Joe M. Sanchez, associate state director of AARP Texas. Almost 10,000 pounds of turkey, 7,000 pounds of stuffing, 5,000 pounds of yams and 3,000 pumpkin pies are served to 25,000 needy people. Fourteen percent of them are older. AARP helps sponsor the event at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center.
"As tired as I am from working in a hot kitchen," Sanchez said, "it's an emotional high to see the faces and gratitude of those you serve."
Click here to find the location of the Texas food bank nearest you.
Michele Meyer is a freelance writer based in Houston.