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.
This new fundraising drive is welcome news for financially strapped agencies struggling to meet growing food needs amid government cutbacks and declining donations.
"For the first time in our history, we have had to create a wait list of about 80 agencies that need food," said Carole D. Tremblay, Los Angeles Regional Food Bank chief development officer. "We just can't supply enough."
Tonjia Barnes, Pasadena Senior Center director of client services and outreach, said that it does not currently receive funding to serve those with the greatest need — people ages 50 to 59 — because the funding is earmarked for those 60 and older. She hopes this new effort might provide funds so they can expand their services to those under 60.
Older Californians also can receive food assistance from CalFresh, the state's version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. But only 17 percent of eligible older Californians receive this aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One reason may be the state's burdensome application process, said Kerry Birnbach, of California Food Policy Advocates.
AARP's Pacheco sums it up this way: "We know there's a huge hunger problem in California, and that's why the state office is engaging in the Around the Corner Hunger project to solicit donations for local food banks in the L.A. area, where the need is particularly acute. We are committed to involving our staff, volunteers, members and the public in this very important effort."
Also of interest: AARP resources on hunger and food insecurity. >>
Laura Mecoy is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.