Az 3rd in nation for 50-59 year olds at risk for hunger
Too young for some aid programs, many experience food insecurity
WILLIAMS – At the only food bank in this rural community, it was no surprise for founder Guy Mikkelsen to see business boom as the economy faltered.
What he expected less was the surge of people in their 50s who had jobs for most of their lives but now need food assistance –those too young to qualify for social aid programs such as Social Security or Medicare and sometimes too old to find a new or comparable position in a tight job market.
“They are finding themselves short of supplies and food, and they are having to come seek assistance from us, many for the first time in their lives,” Mikkelsen said.
Arizona ranks third nationally for 50– to 59–year-olds at risk of hunger, with roughly 12 percent of people in this age group experiencing what is known as food insecurity, according to a report released in August by AARP.
Among those in their 50s, food insecurity increased by more than a third between 2007 and 2009.
“This is potentially a vulnerable group … who can kind of slip through various components of the safety net in the U.S.,” said James Ziliak, co–author of the report and director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.
The report used 2001 to 2009 data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of about 50,000 households by the Census Bureau.
People eligible for Medicare need to be 65 or older – those under that age can be eligible under certain circumstances – while the earliest a person can get Social Security retirement benefits is 62. Another program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is designed for families with children.
However, people in their 50s are eligible for disability benefits – the report says that half of the people facing food insecurity in this age group are disabled – and the Supplemental Assistance for Nutrition Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Ginny Hildebrand, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, said those in rural areas are more exposed to food insecurity than urban areas.
“If you are a low–income senior, you are going to be further challenged to find resources that are going to help you,” she said.
The Williams food bank allows clients to pick up food twice a month on Fridays, and some drive as far as 40 miles to get here.
Williams resident Ron Bruce, who is 53, said he sometimes wishes he were older so he could get Social Security benefits. He and his wife are still able to go to the grocery store for some things but have to watch expenses closely.
“Basically I come here because of lack of money, you know,” Bruce said. “It’s just not enough when you pay your rent.”
Hildebrand said seeking help for food can be shameful for people who have had a salary for most of their lives and didn’t have to worry about the price of groceries.
“There is that social phenomenon, if you will, that we’ve instituted in our country and we talk about it – the American Dream – that if you have a house, if you have a job, if you’ve worked all your life, things should be good,” Hildebrand said. “And we know that that doesn’t exist for people, but it’s still in our heads and in our psyche.”
At the Flagstaff Family Food Center, a nonprofit created in 1991 that prepares free meals every day, Executive Director Roger Nosker said he’s also seeing more people who appear to be in their 50s seeking help.
“These people have been barely hanging on, barely making it, and it doesn’t take very much to kind of tip the scale the wrong direction,” Nosker said.
Flagstaff resident Terie Knutson, who is 56, received her first food stamps recently but still seeks assistance at the food center. For the past two months, she has worked in a hotel in exchange for a room.
“I’d rather not have to come to a place like this, but sometimes, you know, things happen,” Knutson said. “And I am just grateful that they are here.”