Seven years ago, Eddie Cantrell was a recent retiree with time on his hands. Looking for a way to pass the days and give back to his local community, he helped start a food bank for seniors in his tiny, bedroom retirement community of Dibble in the Oklahoma countryside.
He had no idea what he was in for.
“When we first started this thing seven years ago we figured it would be 15 to 20 little old ladies,” Cantrell tells TakePart. “It’s grown to 150 people. It kind of blew up on us. We’re all volunteers. It’s a lot to handle. But how do you walk away? I can’t.”
Not with the kind of need Cantrell has witnessed. He estimates nearly half the seniors in his town are low income and in desperate need of assistance.
“We’re a bunch of old people, trying to take care of ourselves and each other as best as we can,” he says.
This tenuous state of food insecurity faced by the citizens of Dibble isn’t isolated to rural America. Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in America, says that between three and four million seniors are at immediate risk of hunger on any given day. Those shortly below retirement age often don’t fare any better. During a two-year period right after the economic collapse, from 2007 to 2009, the number of Americans in their 50s at risk of hunger grew by 40 percent.
“The problem with most seniors, is that many of them made very little money during their working lives,” Fraser tells TakePart. “So they didn’t save anything. If the peak of their working life was 20 to 30 years ago, their social security incomes are very meager: $725 a month or so. They have no pension, no income: only meager social security check and that’s it.”
The economic crisis and rising gas and electricity prices have only exacerbated that trend.
Fraser tells the story of an elderly woman at one of Feeding America’s partner food banks in Orlando last summer. It was an incredibly hot, humid day, and the woman walked a mile to a bus stop before taking a series of rides to the food bank across town. By the time she arrived, there was already a tremendous line of people in front of her.
“Terrible poverty and depravation lie in the shadows of Disney,” says Fraser.
After waiting an hour in line, the old woman vomited before passing out on the blistering concrete. Volunteers from the food bank took care of her and eventually drove her home with her groceries. They arrived to find a house so hot the volunteers could barely stand to stay inside.
The woman lived alone, and was terrified to turn on the air conditioning, for fear she wouldn’t be able to pay the bill.
“The majority of seniors that we help, they come to us for help month after month after month,” says Fraser. “The stories are heartbreaking. They often have to choose between food or medication each month. Or between food or heat.”
Cantrell says that if his food bank were to shut down, it would have a devastating effect on the community.
“They’ll starve,” he says of his town’s elderly residents. “They’ll tell you so.”
Then, he tells me a story:
“We had one old boy who used to [use and] volunteer at the center, 77 year old. Ornery as he could be. But everyone liked him. His job was handling the Styrofoam cups. A little while back he had a knee replacement and a hip replacement. He eventually made it back to the senior center. Everybody cheered. Well, he was living beside his daughter in a travel trailer. He’s a large guy. His shower was two foot wide and he was about three. Day after he came back to the center, his daughter come in to check on him in his trailer. He being his ornery self said ‘leave me alone.’
“Well, in the shower, his new knee buckled on him. He laid there for 12 hours. Lasted two hours after his daughter found him. He died after sleeping in that cold water.”
It’s a terrible story—but illustrative nonetheless. Upwards of three million seniors are living completely out on a wire right now, despite the best efforts of those like Cantrell.
“We can’t save the world,” says Cantrell. “We’re not running a Walmart. You can’t come in and get everything you want. All we can do is try to sustain these folks until their next paycheck comes in.”
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Los Angeles-based investigative journalist and editor Matt Fleischer was awarded a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism for his ongoing series “Dangerous Jails.” Reflecting his passion for social justice reporting, Fleischer’s work has been honored by the Association for Alternative Newsweeklies, the LA Press Club, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), and First Amendment Funding Inc.