ELKHART — The money for groceries comes from what is left after paying the rent, the utility bills and the prescriptions.
For many senior citizens coming to the Council on Aging of Elkhart County, putting food at the bottom of their household budgets is a matter of being practical. They cannot have their heat disconnected in the winter and they cannot live without their medications, but they can eat less.
Dru Bolakowski, director of resource and referral at the Council on Aging, is finding more and more hunger among the clients she helps. Often the problem can be hidden and discovered only when she goes into a house, for example, to look at a leaky roof and finds just cereal and saltines in a kitchen cabinet.
She also hears the stories of how the local elderly do a lot of careful planning and visit several food pantries as well as hot meal sites in order to stretch their food supply to last the entire month.
“It never stops being an ugly situation,” Bolakowski said. “Seeing seniors suffer and having a hard time is something we never get used to.”
The increase in older adults skipping meals, going to pantries and having only a few items in the cupboard is not just an Elkhart County concern. According to the report “Hunger in America 2010,” an estimated 37 million low-income individuals, representing a 46 percent increase from 2006, received emergency food assistance from Feeding America’s network of food banks and partnering agencies.
Among the pantries included in the study, 14.8 percent of the clients were between 55 to 64 years old and 8 percent of were 65 years old and older.
The Elkhart Salvation Army has noticed a similar trend. In 2011, the agency served 29,940 breakfasts at its Main Street location, up from the 28,218 provided in 2010. This year, January through May, a total of 13,940 morning meals have been offered.
And of those coming for the food, the staff has noticed an increase in the number of seniors, said Julie Poertner, social service director at the nonprofit.
The Council on Aging of Elkhart County is based on East Jackson Boulevard but distributes boxes of groceries and provides a meal once a week for individuals age 55 and older at sites in Elkhart, Goshen and Nappanee. Through May, the agency has provided 2,048 meals and 575 boxes of food, amounts that are nearing the totals for all of 2011.
“I’m not necessarily surprised,” Bolakowski said, “but it angers me every day how much folks are going through and how expansive it is.”
A LOAF OF BREAD
One recent Thursday, a large room in the Goshen Salvation Army building was abuzz with conversation and laughter. Seniors were seated around several tables, waiting for the meal and presentation that comprise the Council on Aging’s weekly Lunch and Learn program.
The agency sets no eligibility rules for the lunch and, instead, welcomes all older adults.
“I don’t care if you stink. I don’t care if you have money. It does not matter to us,” said Tammy Smith, executive director of the Council on Aging of Elkhart County. “I would rather they come in here for a meal and have the socialization and go home happy.”
The menus change but the goal remains focused on offering a well-balanced meal to the seniors. For some, Smith said, the food at Lunch and Learn will be the only time they eat that day or will be the only time they eat a hot meal that week.
Eighty-five-year-old Mary Mathews of New Paris attends the agency’s lunch in Goshen for the companionship. Her husband of 67 years died in April 2011, so having a reason to meet friends and enjoy a meal keeps some of the loneliness at bay.
Mathews said she watches her money — as a child of the Depression, she always has — and does not have a shortage of food. She usually eats macaroni and cheese, sandwiches, cereal, soup and occasionally treats herself to a small frozen lasagna entrée.
“I was raised that you don’t want everything,” she said. “So I learned to do without things I like and just get the necessities.”
Still in addition to the weekly lunch, Mathews regularly picks up the bread that the council offers for free. The loaves are well-made, delicious, better than the cheap bread that falls apart when making a sandwich.
Bread that good is expensive, she said.
Mathews is typical of the older population in Elkhart County, Bolakowski explained. They feel they do not need help. They do not ask for help. But, as with Mathews, getting a bread supplement each week helps because that is a couple of dollars she will not have to come up with.
NEVER ASKED FOR HELP
The Thursday lunch offered cold meat sandwiches and potato chips, a picnic-inspired meal to complement the beautiful June day. Once the individual brown bags were arranged in neat rows on the front table, the people formed a line and chose the fare they wanted.
Afterward, they played several rounds of bingo. The fun and boisterous claims of “Bingo!” could have been masking deeper problems for several individuals there and of the many more who turn to the Council on Aging.
Of all the agency’s clients in Elkhart County, 50.2 percent are below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, meaning a household of one has an annual income of no more than $10,890. Another 22.9 percent have incomes between 100 and 125 percent of poverty.
“People hide things very, very well,” Smith said. “This generation of folks doesn’t ask for assistance.”
Cheryl Lutson, who attends the Lunch and Learn program each week in both Goshen and Elkhart, agreed.
She is a member of the older generation, growing up in Chicago and raising her son as a single mother. Life was easy but she always had a job, mostly working in offices, and she always made sure her son had everything he needed even when that meant she wore the same pair of shoes every day for three years.
“There was so much pride you didn’t ask for help, you made do,” Lutson said. “But you can only do that for so long.”
Currently living in Elkhart, Lutson’s life has gotten harder as her health has declined and she struggles to live on Social Security and $16 worth of food stamps each month. She described the handful of food pantries she visits during the course of a month, checking off where she can get meat and where she can get household items like laundry soap and toilet paper.
The food is taken to her home where the goal becomes stretching the items into the most meals and throwing very little away. A can of tuna gets combined with bread crumbs, a can of broth is tossed into a pot with a can of vegetables to make soup, noodles and sauce last four days, anything that cannot be eaten gets put into the freezer.
She said she is grateful for the assistance. Without the food pantries, she has a difficult time imagining her life.
“I would probably have to,” she began before pausing and looking away. “I don’t know. If they didn’t have the food pantries, I probably would have to try to go back to work even though it might kill me. The pantries have made my life easier.”
Food for the Journey program
The amount of food delivered by the Council on Aging of Elkhart County Inc.:
2011: 2,306 meals, 1,370 boxes of food (27,400 pounds)
2012 (through May): 2,048 meals; 572 boxes of food (11,440 pounds)
By the numbers
2009: Just under 64,000 walk-in meal participants
2010: Little more than 50,000 walk-in meal participants
2011: Between 53,000 and 54,000 walk-in meal participants
2012: Averaging 5,000 a month walk-in meal participants
Church Community Services
2010: 25,468 total pantry visits
2011: 27,655 total pantry visits
2010 (through May): 10,671 total pantry visits
Elkhart Salvation Army
Year Breakfast Meals Pantry Visits
2009: 25,309 breakfast meals, 1,143 pantry visits
2010: 28,218 breakfast meals, 1,067 pantry visits
2011: 29,940 breakfast meals, 957 pantry visits
2012 (through May): 13,940 breakfast meals; 363 pantry visits