JACKSONVILLE, Fla. —
Hundreds of homebound senior citizens are on a waiting list for hot meals and a bit of conversation.
Unable to prepare food for themselves, they qualify for the daily Meals on Wheels service that is provided to thousands of fellow seniors across Northeast Florida. But because of declining federal funding, they must wait until spots open.
Willie Harris, 74, who lives on the Northside, is one of the 600 people on Duval County’s Meals on Wheels waiting list. She has a host of medical problems that hamper her ability to prepare meals, much less get to a grocery store.
“I’ve been sick and I can’t cook,” she said.
For now, her son and a friend bring her meals. She said she hopes to at least become one of the Meals on Wheels clients who receive several frozen meals two to three times a week.
“It would help me out,” Harris said.
The situation echoes a recent national report that placed Florida as the state with the ninth highest percentage, 16.64 percent, of people ages 60 and older who are going hungry.
“Unfortunately, I would say our area of Florida is not keeping up with senior hunger, and that some seniors in our community remain at significant risk for hunger,” said Teresa K. Barton, executive director of Aging True, formerly Cathedral Foundation of Jacksonville, which runs the Duval County Meals on Wheels program and feeds about 1,000 seniors daily.
“We are struggling to maintain the levels of feeding that we currently have, with little improvement on the horizon,” Barton said.
Based on telephone screening, the people on the waiting list qualify for delivered meal because they are homebound and isolated. They have no one living with them to prepare a hot daily meal and are unable to prepare a meal for themselves, she said.
But Barton said Aging True does not have the financial resources to expand its existing Meals on Wheels rolls. Fuel and food costs have risen and public funds and donations have declined, as has volunteer recruitment.
“We are not keeping pace with the growth in our population, specifically, the growth in senior population,” she said. “Our goal remains to eliminate the entire wait list and provide meals to every isolated, hungry senior in our community, but we are less close to that goal today than we were five years ago.”
Seniors face threat
As of the 2010 Census, there were 40.3 million people in the U.S ages 65 and older, with 3.4 million in Florida. About 105,000 of them are in Northeast Florida, 82,000 in Duval County, according to Barton.
Nationwide, about 8.3 million seniors face the threat of hunger, a 78 percent increase since 2001 and a 34 percent increase since the start of the recession in 2007, according to the Senior Hunger Report Card. The Report Card evaluated the nation’s performance in reducing food insecurity and eradicating hunger and gave the U.S. an overall grade of F.
Since 2009, the risk of hunger for the overall U.S. population has declined, while food insecurity increased among those age 60 and older – primarily among the near-poor, with income one to two times the poverty level, according to the Report Card. More than 1 in 7 seniors is threatened by hunger, compared with 1 in 9 seniors in 2005.
“There is no question that we are failing our seniors, some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” Enid A. Borden, chief executive of the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation, said in a news release. “No one in this, the richest nation on Earth, should face the threat of hunger, no one. And seniors, who have little power to change their circumstances, deserve our special attention.”