Is America Failing Our Nation's Seniors?

In 2008, the Meals On Wheels Association of America released the results of a groundbreaking research report entitled "The Causes, Consequences and Future of Senior Hunger in America" that our Foundation had commissioned. The findings of the co-principal investigators, Dr. James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen then of the University of Iowa, were shocking and unacceptable. In 2001, the research showed, five million seniors in the United States, or one in nine, were facing the threat of hunger. The next year, we asked the same researchers to examine several more years of data and update the report. By 2007, the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger was six million. Any reader who can do the math knows that is a 20 percent increase in just six years. But without context, the average reader might not be able to grasp the magnitude of the number. Let me give some context. There are 33 states in this country that each have total state populations of less than 6 million.

Is America failing our nation's seniors? And if we are moving in the clearly wrong direction where senior hunger is concerned today, what of the future?

The baby boomers (and I am one of them) are now entering the ranks of older persons, and it is safe to assume that we will be a demanding lot, constantly in search of more and different kinds of services. We will not likely want to live in assisted living or the even less desirous nursing home environment as generations before us have. Rather, we will want to live independently in community settings. Yet that raises a critical question: Can community-based organizations and the concomitant services needed keep up with the demand? Or will America, having failed to turn the tide on senior hunger with the current generation continue down the path of failure with the next-- and much larger-- generation of our nation's seniors?

It is easy to focus on the short term view of the past, the last couple of decades that have seen a faltering economy that went from great highs to unparalleled, sustained lows and a burgeoning population of older adults, and to lay the blame here. But we have seen depression in the place of deep recession in the more distant past. And we have seen population surges like that of the last century, not driven by birth rates, but by immigrants who came to these shores seeking a better life. Many of those older persons, like my own grandparents, came into his vast, wonderful land of ours, this great melting pot, seeking the American dream. Even with its own troubles, America did not fail them.

But it is different for millions of older Americans today. At least 6 million in 2007; and while we do not have more current research to account for the impact of the economy of the past several years on seniors, one researcher has suggested that the real number of those facing hunger's real, ominous and daily threat might be 30 percent higher.

All the while, when the national attention, or should I say national debate, turns to seniors and senior issues, the discussion seems confined primarily to Social Security and Medicare - "their programs," those entitlements to which individuals who have paid into the system look for help to sustain them in their elder years. They regard their payments to the trust funds as investments, and they expect to reap some advantages from those investments. Fair enough. But because these programs are entitlements -- which means both that they guarantee some benefit and that they are costly to the budget to maintain (particularly as there are fewer and fewer young people paying into the system than in years past) -- they have become the rallying cry for those who say "look at what we do for seniors. What more do they want?"

Well, sometimes it's not about what they want, but what they need. Feeding the hungry is not a response to an optional want. It's a moral obligation... and food is certainly something to which every man, woman and child is entitled. Plainly put, it's not good enough any longer for Meals On Wheels to be viewed as a feel-good, do-good social service program. Surely local Meals On Wheels programs are that, and they are integral parts of the fabric of every community. That is why the data show us that 99 percent of the American public views these programs positively. But that's not enough. Our elected officials love these programs, and we are grateful for that. At least once a year they are pleased to do a photo-op delivering a meal. But is once a year enough?

When budget issues arise in Congress and the two parties are duking it out on the floor of the Congress, Meals On Wheels generally comes up. But is it good enough to use the story of cutting off meals to seniors and then fail to make adequate funds available to meet the need, so that in the end, after the partisan sparring is over, Meals On Wheels programs in fact have to reduce the number of meals or the number of seniors they serve?

So, I ask the question again. Is America failing our nation's seniors? And, what do we do about it? We, at Meals On Wheels programs throughout the United States, continue to deliver the best services and meals that we can. We are asked to perform two separate tasks. First is simply to feed those seniors who would otherwise go hungry. Second -- and this sets Meals On Wheels and our services apart -- is to ensure that those being fed receive food that is nutritious; that meets government guidelines for nutritional composition; that is maintained at proper temperatures, even if they are being transported forty or more miles along with other meal deliveries being made to other seniors waiting for their food; that is medically, ethnically, and religiously appropriate; and that tastes good too.

Is America failing our nation's seniors? The statistics would say the answer is yes. But are we failing our nation's seniors? No. We are Meals On Wheels, and Meals On Wheels programs are not failing our nation's seniors. Our programs are a lifeline and an anchor for the hundreds of thousands of seniors who need a helping hand. Yes, we can and we will end senior hunger and provide nutritious meals at the same time. We have the courage of our convictions and we will stand up against those who would seek to shut us out and shut us down. There simply is no other option.

Stand with us. In this the richest nation on Earth no one should go hungry. We must not fail our nation's seniors. Stand with us in this fight.