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Going Hungry in America

How could it happen here?

When Carole Drew retired from her job with Volunteers of America four years ago, she thought that her modest savings would help assure that she could make ends meet. If for some reason she ran into trouble, Drew figured, help would be there if she needed it.

It wasn’t.

Early this year, when rising food and energy prices outpaced the $649 in Social Security she gets each month, Drew turned to the local food bank for help.

She was turned down. “They said they couldn’t sign me up because they already had too many people,” says Drew, 70, who lives in Long Beach, Calif. Every month since then, she’s checked back. Every month, she’s been told the program still has a moratorium on new clients.

“I’m having to use up the little I have in savings to pay for food and gasoline,” Drew says. “On a set income, you worry a little more every time the price goes up.”

Around the country, with food and energy prices soaring, more older Americans—especially those on fixed incomes or among the working poor—find themselves struggling. Like Drew, they’re dipping into meager savings, asking relatives for help, lining up at food banks or soup kitchens for the first time in their lives, or simply going to bed hungry.

“As gas and food prices rise, people who had no wiggle room before are facing tough decisions on what to pay for,” says Shelley Borysiewicz, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities USA, a network of more than 1,700 agencies and institutions that provide food, housing and other assistance. “You’re afraid to miss a payment on your rent or mortgage for fear of eviction or foreclosure. You’re paying more every time you go to the grocery store or fill the tank. What do you cut back on? Medicine? Food?”

For many, those are the only alternatives. In a recent CNN poll, 30 percent of the people surveyed nationwide said that they were already cutting back on food and medicine—a choice that almost certainly compromises their health and well-being.

“I hear it all the time, people having to choose between buying medicine or groceries,” says Lucy Stokes, 71, who lives in Washington, D.C., where she volunteers for the We Are Family Senior Outreach Network, a program that provides food and services in the city’s poorest areas. “Mostly they do without medicine. Maybe they’ll get sick. But you have to eat to survive.”

Measures of desperation

One gauge of desperation is the surging number of people turning to food banks, soup kitchens and other emergency food assistance programs. Many organizations that operate such programs report that the ranks of people lining up for free groceries or a free meal are up at least 15 percent from a year ago. The Clayton County Aging Program in Georgia estimates that the number of older people coming in for food assistance has doubled in the past year. Some particularly hard-hit communities have seen even bigger increases.

“A year ago we budgeted what we thought we’d need,” says Julie Murray, CEO of Three Square, which operates a 120,000-square-foot food bank in Las Vegas. “This year we’ve had to quadruple those numbers.”

As the ranks of needy Americans have increased, the demographics of hunger have also changed. “I’ve seen a lot of up and down cycles after 30 years in this business,” says Bill Bolling, executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “What’s fundamentally different is who we’re seeing at the door of the agencies we serve. Half of the people have full-time jobs but don’t earn enough to keep up with the rising prices of health care, energy and food. The working poor increasingly compete with seniors on fixed incomes.”

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