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Hungry in the West End - Part 1: The Problem is Simple, But Not the Solution

En español

By Jody McPhillips

Hungry in the West End addresses senior hunger in Providence's West End community -- an area of hard-core poverty burdened further by the recession. This series attempts to put a face on the problem of senior hunger in the West End and throughout America, and to give voice to those who are responding to the challenge of feeding the hungry. New elements of the series -- reports written by Jody McPhillips and a series of videos produced by AARP Rhode Island's John Martin will be posted over the next two weeks.

Luz Navarro, 62, has been on dialysis for four years. She also has diabetes, and part of her left foot has been amputated.


Her world has contracted to her kitchen on Chapin Avenue in Providence's West End., where she is warming some milk for her cat. It’s a far cry from the days when she ran her own insurance agency in New York City.

“I can’t get around very well,” she says, and it’s hard to stand at the stove to cook.

Three times a week, Mrs. Navarro must undergo dialysis. Five times a week, Meals on Wheels delivers lunch to her kitchen table, and she appreciates it. The meal lets her feel a bit less dependent on her family.

“I don’t like anybody to tell me what to do,” she explains. “I’m very independent.”

Hungry in the West End - The Video Series









Mrs. Navarro's situation shows how complicated it can be to see that all of Rhode Island's elderly are getting enough to eat. If she could drive, she could get to the market, or to a food pantry when money is tight. If she could walk, she could have lunch with other seniors and socialize.

But she can't do any of those things. She's not healthy enough.

Watch Luz Navarro interviewed by Jody McPhillips and AARP Rhode Island's John Martin.

In Washington and across America, there is an ongoing debate. Some say that entitlement programs, including those addressing hunger, are creating a "culture of dependency." Others insist that despite soaring federal debt, it's impossible to cut programs like those that provide food to the needy.

While the pundits debate, Mrs. Navarro and many like her in the West End and throughout the state need to eat.

In Rhode Island as across the nation, a complex web of private, public and faith-based services has evolved to get food to those who need it.

The main federal engines are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for food stamps; and the farm subsidies that benefit big agriculture. Participation in SNAP has more than doubled since 2000, to about 47 million nationwide; it's unclear what will happen to the  Farm Bill, with very different versions germinating in the House and Senate. But there is a persisent effort to cut SNAP funding.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman says a Farm Bill is not likely to pass in 2013. When the deadlock ends in an extension, as was the case in 2012, the impact on food programs figures to be signficant. Bittman: Welfare for the Wealthy.


UPDATE 7/12/13 House Republicans Pass Farm Bill, Without SNAP.

"There's been a constant effort to slash food programs" as Congress grapples with the budget deficit, says Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI.  But, he says, Rhode Island remains committed to using its food dollars as efficiently as possible. "I'd like to see that continue."

He notes that Rhode Island has launched some innovative programs, including the Fresh Bucks voucher that lets SNAP recipients use their benefits to buy produce at farmers' markets. Watch the Jack Reed interview.

But in an era of shrinking budgets, it's becoming harder to do the things necessary to help older people stay in their homes for as long as possible. Catherine Taylor, director of the state Division of Elder Affairs, says Meals on Wheels is a case in point.

"The state understands the need to keep people out of institutions," and Meals on Wheels is a big part of that, she says. Yet earlier this year, she notes, it took intensive lobbying to restore threatened cuts to an array of senior services aimed at keeping older people out of nursing homes.

And the future is looking darker, rather than brighter.

Catherine Taylor 2

"Rhode Island has been in terrible financial shape lately, and we've looked to the federal government for help," Taylor says. As the nation tries to get its deficit spending under control, that help may not be forthcoming. Watch the Catherine Taylor interview.

Other worrisome signs: Summer's drought conditions in the midwest are expected to push up food and gas prices, further taxing already-strained budgets. The baby boom is getting older and that means the cost of supplementing the needs of older Americans will rise steadly.

Taylor refuses to be discouraged.

"It's up to us to picture the world we want to age in," and to work to bring it about, she says. "Elder hunger and homelessness should not exist. We do have the resources to deal with this."


Hungry in the West End


Explore Jody McPhillips' Web series
Part 1: The Problem is Simple, But Not the Solution
Part 2: Feeding People Too Ashamed to Ask for Help
Part 3: Meals on Wheels Feeds the Homebound
Part 4: Food Pantries Feed All Comers
Part 5: Food & Friendship Served Up at St. Martin de Porres
Part 6: Nutritionists Help Seniors to Eat Right
Part 7: At 88, Theresa Gives Food Stamps a Second Try
Part 8: Volunteers Serve From the Heart, Get Back More Than They Give


Watch John Martin's Hungry in the West End documentary series
Episode 1: The Growing Problem
Episode 2: Doing More with Less
Episode 3: Food for the Soul
Episode 4: Emergency
Episode 5: What Is Affordable?
Episode 6: It's Okay
Episode 7: Abundance
Episode 8: "It's Good Work"


Hunger news

The Postal Service's "Stamp Out Hunger" day is May 11. Watch the video.
RI Monthly: Interview with John Martin on Hungry in the West End America's Grandparents Are Hidden Victims of Hunger Crisis
Enid Borden: Ending Senior Hunger Must Begin Today
Hunger News From
Ezra Klein on senior isolation: "Call Your Grandmother."
Governor Chafee Releases Report on RI SNAP, Welfare Fraud. Download the Report.
Washington Post: Food Stamps Put Rhode Island Town on Monthly Boom-and-Bust Cycle
RI Farmers Markets Growing...with Some Pain
Chaffee Kicking Off March for Meals Campaign
New York Times: More to Meal Delivery Than Food
Drive to End Hunger Launches 2013 Season in Daytona
US Conference of Mayors: Slow Recovery Keeps Pressure on Emergency Food and Shelter Services
AARP Announces Million Dollar Partnership to Fight Older Adult Hunger
Drive to End Hunger's Jeff Gordon Leads Pack of Celebrity Hunger Advocates.

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