Nadine Devlin was a nurse for 25 years and has taken care of her mother, her son and her 3-year-old grandson. In her eyes, she was the rock on which her family could stand.
"I never thought I'd get sick. I'd been a caregiver all my life, and I never thought I'd be in the same situation," said Devlin, 61, of Homestead.
See also: SNAP primer: What are the benefits?
But two years ago, after battling cancer and other health issues, she had to go on Social Security disability, which pays $846 a month, not nearly enough to cover the bills. She applied for food stamps but didn't qualify. Last summer, a friend persuaded her to stop by the food bank in Homestead, an aging, hardscrabble steel town in the Monongahela Valley.
She did so reluctantly.
"I asked, 'Is this legal? Because I don't want to break any laws,' " Devlin said. "I'd rather starve than break a law."
Now Devlin visits the Rainbow Kitchen Food Pantry on the second Wednesday of each month where "we get canned goods, sometimes paper products, eggs, a pound of margarine, a box of cereal. And, recently, they gave us a bag of frozen potatoes, fish and chicken legs, which was nice."
Food insecurity knows no age, race or region. It is driven by the economy. More people need help from pantries, food banks and child nutrition programs. In Pennsylvania, roughly 2.5 million people — including 700,000 who are 60 and older — are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Of those older people, only about one in five has applied for the benefit.
The troubled economy has put a strain on the network of charitable food providers. "There is increased demand and decreased supply," said Joe Quattrocchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center. "People who used to give a bag now need a bag."
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank serves 18,000 seniors a month. "Some have had to make choices between paying for food or medicine," said Iris Valanti, its communications director.
AARP volunteers throughout Pennsylvania work closely with agencies such as Just Harvest in Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center in Harrisburg and Benefits Data Trust in Philadelphia to help people apply for SNAP and other income-related benefits.
Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, said bureaucratic barriers — more than pride or embarrassment — often prevent older people from applying. He called the 18-page application process "quite complicated."
"If you go into the Allegheny County sheriff's office and you ask for a gun permit, they give you a one-page sheet to fill out," he said.
Many older people don't realize they are eligible for benefits, said Ginger Zielinskie, executive director of Benefits Data Trust.
"A lot of people from this generation would not consider themselves low-income or in need of support even though they may be cutting their medicines in half or skipping a meal or sleeping with their coats on."
This year, AARP and the AARP Foundation have enlisted the estimated 70 million NASCAR fans in the Drive to End Hunger. AARP is the primary sponsor of car No. 24, driven by four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon.
On Aug. 7, Gordon is scheduled to drive in the Pennsylvania 500 at the Pocono Raceway, where the AARP Foundation will donate $10,000 to a local food bank.
AARP is involved in other hunger-fighting activities as well:
- In Philadelphia, AARP volunteers hosted a meeting between leaders in the Asian community and Benefits Data Trust.
- In Harrisburg, members of AARP's citizen advocacy team helped build and maintain a 2011 Capitol Hunger Garden, proceeds of which are donated to area food banks.
- This summer, AARP volunteers statewide are distributing Drive to End Hunger-branded cucumber and carrot seed packs at senior fairs and encouraging people to plant hunger gardens, and donate the produce to local food banks.
- In May, more than 300,000 AARP members in eastern Pennsylvania received special AARP-branded bags to be filled with nonperishable food items and collected by postal letter carriers as part of their national Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive.
- In June, more than 1,000 AARP members brought nonperishable food items to the state Capitol as part of AARP Pennsylvania's "Lobby Day" activities.
- In October, Pennsylvania's 140 AARP chapters will participate in a chapter challenge that will recognize the best local food collection drives. To learn more, go to drivetoendhunger.org.
Also of interest: More than 6 million seniors need food. >>
Tara Bradley-Steck, a former Associated Press correspondent, is a freelance writer and adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.