- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Tim Jones had trouble standing as he slowly made his way through the Emmaus Ministries food pantry on Erie’s east side.

Years of construction work and illnesses have taken a toll on the 66-year-old.

“Life is hard. Getting harder,” Jones said Tuesday after making his weekly visit to the pantry.

He’s been a regular at the facility for about five years, and he said he currently feeds a household of five with the bread, pasta meals, canned peaches and other food he brings back to his home.

“We really count on this food,” Jones said. “Words won’t do justice (to) the importance it has.”

Jones is part of a growing trend of senior citizens nationwide and across the Erie region facing the threat of hunger.

Nearly one in six seniors is at risk of hunger, an 88 percent increase over the past dozen years, according to recent reports by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

The reasons for the spike include lingering effects of the recession, cuts made this year to food stamp benefits, and relatives and other dependents living in the homes of senior citizens more than they have in several decades, local officials said.

“Families are living in a way that I’ve never seen in the 25 years I’ve been here,” said Sister Claire Surmik, one of the coordinators of Emmaus’ food pantry, 216 E. 11th St.

“Many more families are doubling up in the home of the (senior citizen) because their children can’t survive. And the senior is often struggling to begin with,” Surmik, 79, said. “The burden then falls on them, so their relatives don’t land homeless and out on the street.”

The pantry, open on Monday and Tuesday mornings, serves 600 to 650 households each week, the highest total since it opened in 1980. A dozen years ago, the number was close to 400.

About one-third of the homes currently served by the pantry are owned or rented by senior citizens.

Jones said he’s noticed more people his age or older coming to Emmaus’ food pantry now than he did when he first started going there.

“Gas is up if they drive, food in the stores can be expensive, and Social Security is not enough to cover their needs,” Surmik said about what seniors have told her when she talks to them inside the pantry and elsewhere.

“With our help, they are able to pay a bill or get medication with money they might otherwise have to put toward food,” the Erie Benedictine nun said. “Something that’s crucial.”

Terry Pytlarz, executive director of Metro-Erie Meals on Wheels, said he’s seen an uptick in senior citizens receiving meals in the three years he’s held his post with the agency. He expects those numbers to only keep rising in the future.

“The need is definitely there now, but it will only get worse. We haven’t seen the explosion yet of baby boomers turning 65. Wait until that happens,” Pytlarz said, referring to the generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

Of the 320 people served daily meals Monday through Friday by the agency, 87 percent are seniors.

For most of the low-income and impoverished clients, the meals are free and paid for by state funding. Others pay $6 for each meal.

“It really helps out. I can extend the meals I already have, which are not many,” said Elaine Chiaramonte, 67, a recipient of Meals on Wheels food for the past year.

The Erie resident said she relies on the Friday meal so much that she often rations it out over the course of the weekend, when she doesn’t receive meals from the agency.

Rosann South, 80, of Erie, is a client of Meals on Wheels and said she also receives food stamps.

“When they cut my food stamps, it was terrible,” South said of the federal cuts made earlier this year. “I’ve got to watch my money. Most of us have to.”





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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