San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 2008: Food program for poor seniors faces cutbacks

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C.W. Nevius

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The early birds for the San Francisco Food Bank’s monthly grocery distribution began to gather at 4 a.m. Monday. By 9:30, the line was out the door, across a courtyard and out the back entrance of the Ping Yuen senior center in Chinatown.

In nine locations around the city, this popular program provides free supplemental nutrition for nearly 10,000 senior citizens who are on the brink of poverty. Not that anyone had to buy the food in the first place. It is surplus product, donated to the Food Bank by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Needy seniors get a helping hand, and an oversupply of cheese gets to be distributed. Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?

So naturally, someone wants to kill the program.

This year, for the third time in a row, President Bush has not included the Commodity Supplemental Food Program in his budget. The administration says the program, which provides funding for agencies like the Food Bank, is “duplicative” because the seniors could use food stamps instead.

There are two problems with this position. First, it sounds mean and callous to senior citizens.

Second, it has the added disadvantage of being wrong.

“It is demonstrably not true,” said San Francisco Food Bank executive director Paul Ash. “In California (and some other states), those seniors who get SSI (Supplemental Security Income) cannot receive food stamps. That’s 80 percent of the people in this program.”

It doesn’t take long to appreciate how important this monthly distribution is to the seniors. I hadn’t been at Ping Yuen for 10 minutes before I took the first elbow in the back. These people may be in their 80s, but I wouldn’t recommend getting between them and their package of powdered milk.

In all, more than 1,000 elderly, Chinese-speaking seniors stood patiently (well, mostly patiently) in a bone-chilling spring breeze to get a box containing foodstuffs like Rice Krispies, pasta and cans of fruit, tuna fish and vegetables.

The simple numbers explain how much they could use the help. To qualify for the program, the seniors have to show that they are making less than $1,126 a month, and many are making only the Supplemental Security Income of $870 a month.

“With 800 bucks, it is too hard to make expenses,” said Wai Lan Chan, a 72-year-old woman who spoke through an interpreter. “In the city, the expenses are getting higher and the income never increases. That’s why the box is very important.”

Now, to be perfectly honest, it is unlikely that the program will be completely cut. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who serves on the agriculture subcommittee, sent The Chronicle a statement of support for the program on Monday.

“This program helps prevent low-income seniors from falling through the cracks,” Feinstein said. “These are tough budget times, but my congressional colleagues and I have fought to restore funding for this program the past several years, and we will do so again this year.”

And that’s fine. There’s just one problem.

“Unfortunately,” says Ash, “each year we get a little haircut. Three years ago, we were feeding 11,000 seniors. Now we are limited to 9,600.”

It isn’t as if the need is declining. The minimum age for the program is 60, meaning that the huge Baby Boom generation is beginning to be eligible. And the average age of a participant across the nation is 73, which suggests that most don’t make use of the program until their 70s. But in the face of the likely increase in eligible participants, funding has actually decreased in the last three years.

In 2005, there was enough federal money to serve 536,196 people. Last year, after cutbacks, that number was down to 473,473.

Right now, 27,500 seniors are eligible for the program in San Francisco, although only 9,600 are getting the aid, says Food Bank advocacy and education manager Marguerite Nowak. Even at that number, Ash says, the Food Bank expects to distribute 31 million pounds of food this year.

So while it is extremely unlikely that the food program will disappear, it is moving in the wrong direction. The official word from Washington includes a lot of talk about “tough economic numbers” and “difficult choices in difficult times.”

That’s all fine, but it overlooks the reality of the people in that line. Ash says the Food Bank has explained more than once that there is no reason to line up so early. The Chinatown distribution, the largest in the city, runs to as many as 1,500 seniors, so food is distributed over two days.

It takes some doing to find fault with a program like this, but some have managed to do it. A woman came up to our photographer on Monday and hissed that some of the seniors take the food and then sell it on the street.

This, I have to admit, is possible. A small minority of the recipients can be seen peddling the contents of their food box on the sidewalk. Are you horrified?

Just to review: These are seniors who have proved that they are making less than $1,126 a month. They are being given surplus food. Once a month. Some of them may sell it to make a couple of extra bucks.

But what offends you more: Selling food on the street or cutting badly needed monthly supplements for nearly 500,000 people across the country?

You can make your own choice, but I can tell you what I’ve decided – I’ll give you 2 bucks for a can of that tuna.

C.W. Nevius’ column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail him at

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