The number of seniors struggling with hunger has hit record highs in the United States – and is expected to climb. At the same time, President Donald Trump is threatening to cut funding for critical services that help sustain this demographic.
One in 11 seniors in America faces hunger, and that figure is expected to double over the next decade, according to Feeding America, a national food bank network. Advocacy groups are stressing this stat to create a sense of urgency at the start of Older Americans Month, which takes place during May.
Their warnings come in the wake of Trump’s preliminary budget outline, released in March, which proposed cutting federal funding for several anti-poverty programs. That included eliminating a Department of Health and Human Services program that doles out grants to a number of initiatives, including some of the network groups within Meals on Wheels, a national initiative that represents 5,000 home-meal delivery organizations.
And while the precise details of how Trump’s budget would directly impact Meals on Wheels are still murky, the organization is worried.
“Our ability to provide services as basic as nutrition is completely dependent on our ability to raise federal funding,” Ellie Hollander, president and CEO, told HuffPost this week. “The concern remains because there’s a lot at stake.”
About 35 percent of Meals on Wheels’ funding comes from the federal government.
While Hollander is empathetic to the fact that government cuts have to happen somewhere, targeting programs like Meals on Wheels doesn’t make much budgeting sense, she said. That’s mostly because this program actually saves the government money by helping to keep seniors at home living independently, which is cheaper than what it would cost to send them to an emergency room or long-term facility.
Meals on Wheels is able to feed a senior for an entire year for the equivalent cost of one day in a hospital or 10 days in a nursing home, Hollander said.
Yet, the Trump administration doesn’t appear to appreciate the value of Meals on Wheels to seniors’ health and its ability to save taxpayers money. Budget director Mick Mulvaney said in March: “We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And Meals on Wheels sounds great. ... We cannot defend that anymore. We’re $20 trillion in debt.”
But even before having to grapple with the proposed cuts, Meals on Wheels wasn’t able to keep pace with the growing demand among seniors in need.
There are 10.2 million seniors who struggle with hunger in America, Hollander noted, but the organization serves only 2.4 million. Waiting lists for Meals on Wheels’ services continue to grow throughout the U.S., as does the number of seniors who are living longer.
Every day, 12,000 seniors are turning 60, according to Meals on Wheels. That also means that more people are living longer with chronic illnesses, and need more resources in order to remain at home.
Linda Preast, 56, who voted for Trump, has relied on Meals on Wheels since suffering a stroke two years ago.
“I was under the influence that he was going to help us,” the Georgia resident told CBS News in March of her hopes for Trump.
Many seniors never anticipated seeking assistance at this stage in life, as they expected to retire comfortably the way generations before them did.
Donna, 76, who resides in Steuben, Maine, has a subsistence farm. She grows her own vegetables and raises most of her own meat, she told Feeding America in a recent interview. Still, Donna struggles to make ends meet and often looks to her local Feeding America food bank to get such staples as lettuce, dried beans and rice.
I never thought I would have to ask anyone for any help. At 76, you should be retired or you should be able to take care of yourself. Donna, a 76-year-old who gets food from her local food bank
“When you’re young, you’re kind of infallible,” Donna said. “I never thought I would have to ask anyone for any help. At 76, you should be retired or you should be able to take care of yourself.”
More than 7 million seniors seek food assistance from Feeding America’s network of food banks.
Donna said she often has to choose between buying food and paying her electric bill, which is a common tradeoff senior citizens in need have to make.
More than 60 percent of older adult households Feeding America serves report choosing between buying food and paying utility bills. The same percentage reported deciding between food and medical care or prescriptions.
Meals on Wheels is currently looking to implement new financial models to help support the program. In Maryland, for example, it’s experimenting with social impact bonds with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. If that program proves successful, the organization will scale the model across the country, Hollander said.
She’s hopeful such alternatives will help sustain the organization when federal dollars don’t.
“It’s about neighbors helping neighbors,” Hollander said of the essence of Meals on Wheels. “While the social and moral imperative clearly should be enough for the world’s wealthiest country to step up and provide for their senior neighbors, that doesn’t seem to be enough.”