Today, the retired hairdresser, 81, is fighting eviction from her home and counting on a monthly allocation of food from the Pasadena Senior Center.
"Years ago, I thought: 'I feel sorry for people who need help, and I'm not going to ever get myself in that position,' " she said. "Now, I'm at the top of the list."
Johnson has company. One in 13 older Californians is at risk of hunger, according to a report commissioned by the AARP Foundation. With the recession, the number at risk has grown nationwide, especially among the middle class, with 8.8 million Americans 50 and older facing the prospect of hunger.
"I think most people are shocked when they find out how many older Americans go hungry," said David Pacheco, AARP California president. "But one thing we know is that people want to do something about it. It doesn't matter what political party they belong to — Americans just do not believe that people should go hungry in this country."
New campaign launched
The AARP Foundation recently launched a new program, called Around the Corner Hunger, to focus attention on hunger among older people on a local level. The project, launched in Los Angeles, Houston and New York City/New Jersey, is part of AARP Drive to End Hunger in those areas.
"Hunger is right in your neighborhood," said Gwenn Murray, the foundation's Hunger Impact Program manager. "Around the Corner Hunger is our strategy to raise funds for community-based organizations that are on the front lines of addressing hunger among older adults every day."
At aroundthecornerhunger.org, donors can choose to give enough money for a week or more of food and designate it for one of the three locations or to wherever the foundation thinks it is needed most. A $25 donation provides roughly a week of food. Over the next two years, the project will expand to include more community-based organizations around the country. Local hunger programs will receive 100 percent of the donations. The MetLife Foundation is matching donations for the New York metropolitan area up to a total of $100,000.
Other efforts are under way as well. In September, Tony Bennett was the star attraction at a Los Angeles benefit concert, with proceeds going to Drive to End Hunger, and celebrity chefs participated in a Los Angeles event that drew more than 100 volunteers to feed the needy.