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Going Hungry in America

How could it happen here?

The changing demographics of hunger are also reflected in the federal food stamp program. Working Americans now make up 41 percent of participants in the program, up from 30 percent a decade ago. Older adults are less likely than any other age group to use the program: Of people age 60-plus who were eligible for food stamps, only 34.5 percent received them in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of these are proud people who never thought for a minute they’d have to ask for a handout,” says Rosanna Smith, program manager of the Clayton County Aging Program in Georgia.

On a blazing-hot day in St. George, Utah, a 72-year-old man loading a bag of groceries into his car outside the local Dixie Care & Share food bank declines to provide his name, embarrassed to have anyone know he’s had to ask for a handout. A retired storeowner, he’s gone through most of his savings to provide health care for his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease. “I never wanted to ask anyone for help,” he says with an angry shake of his head. “It’s a humiliation. But you do what you have to do to survive.”

Over the edge

The crisis in food and energy prices has unfolded with startling speed. Economists first began to worry when food costs climbed almost 5 percent in 2007. The worry has turned to alarm as prices continue to surge in 2008. Some staples have seen double-digit inflation: Milk, 13 percent. Bread, 15 percent. Eggs, 30 percent.

To put those numbers in perspective, consider that food price inflation averaged just 2.1 percent a year from 1996 to 2006. From June 2007 to June 2008, it jumped 6.1 percent.

And food prices tell only part of the story. Gas and heating oil prices have nearly doubled over the past two years. Higher energy costs are also driving up the cost of almost everything, including food and clothing.

As always, those near the bottom of the economic ladder suffer the most when inflation hits the essentials. The average American family spends about 7 percent of its income on food. Those at the poverty line spend as much as 30 percent.

“All it takes these days is a health crisis or the loss of a job to send people over the edge,” says Mark Andersen, cofounder of the We Are Family Senior Outreach Network.

Consider the explosion in foreclosures and bankruptcies. In 2007, more than a million Americans filed for bankruptcy, according to the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, which called it “a public manifestation of the most extreme financial difficulty.” Since 1991, the sharpest increase in bankruptcy filings has been among Americans 55 or older; the rate for those 65 and older has more than doubled.

James Willoughby, 65, of Riverdale, Calif., knows how quickly disaster can devastate a household. Six years ago he was making a decent living as a commercial air-conditioning technician. “After raising our kids, my wife and I were just beginning to tuck money away,” he says.

Then Willoughby lost first one leg and then the other to diabetes and had to quit work. Now on Social Security, he and his wife have just $240 left after paying their monthly bills for groceries, gasoline and other expenses.

“We’ve got to beg, borrow and steal to get a ride to the doctors,” he says. “We can’t go to buy clothes. My wife is learning to stretch the food we get. I’ve got tens of thousands of dollars in doctors’ bills. I tell them straight out I can’t pay. That’s my grocery money.”

How many go hungry?

By all rights, older Americans should be holding their own. Fifty years ago, a shocking 30 percent of people 65 and older were living in poverty. President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” ushered in a dramatic decline in poverty rates, which reached a 26-year low in 2000. Today, the federal government counts 10 percent of Americans 65 and older at or below the poverty line. But that number may hide a harsher reality, some economists say.

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