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Feed the Hungry

November 19, 1993



AMERICA'S hungry children, if they have not always been fed, have received their due and indignant publicity from shocked reporters and photographers. On the other hand, older Americans have been stereotyped as an increasingly affluent minority, with safety nets in place for those who do fall into poverty.

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A new report from the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, might be subtitled ``The Other Hungry Americans.'' The two-year national study finds that 12 percent of older Americans sometimes go hungry or must make excruciating choices between buying food and paying for such basic necessities as rent.

More than half of those over age 65 surveyed in 16 communities reported that they experience some degree of what the report delicately terms ``food insecurity,'' meaning that they must borrow money for groceries, skip a meal here and there to economize, or at worst resort to using emergency food pantries. The study also confirms other studies showing that half of all older people entering the hospital show signs of malnutrition.

What meaning does ``quality of life'' have for those who can think of little but where the next meal is coming from? In New York City, the Meals on Wheels programs have waiting lists of up to 175 people in any one location. Some 25 percent of the 1.3 million New Yorkers older than 60 live on $3 a day after paying for food and rent; to them New York is hardly the Big Apple. The report found things little better in communities like Columbus, Ohio, and Coachella, Calif.

Lest the study look like a statistical spreadsheet, anecdotes have been summoned - not excluding the worst-case scenario of the woman reduced to eating dog food. Should it be this hard to capture public attention?

Feeding the hungry in this still-rich country is not a matter of solving food shortages. The chief difficulty is distribution, the only lack a lack of will. The Urban Institute points out the need to allocate more money to feeding programs and more money to the almost-poor elderly, who may go unnoticed and uncounted among those who sometimes go hungry.

It is fashionable among certain sophisticated thinkers to declare as insoluble certain complex problems that beset modern society. Let it be said with justified impatience: Hunger is not one of them.