Senior Hunger, Spatial Hurdles

Elderly people going hungry is a problem that many people still do not know about or act upon. Enid Borden, president of the American Meals on Wheels Association, contends that the phenomenon has long been neglected in the country.[1] In 2013, nearly one in six of those above sixty years of age were at least slightly “food insecure.”[2] Ethnic minorities are hit harder than white seniors. Hispanics, for instance, are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanics to deal with hunger.[3]
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) engages with senior hunger. It has funded an award-winning, eight-part mini-documentary about the issue in the American city of Providence. The programme’s title Hungry in the West End (2013) firmly roots senior hunger in a specific underprivileged locale of the city. Sixty-five per cent of West End residents are Hispanic, and the unemployment rate among this community was the highest nationwide in 2011. The documentary reveals the difficulties of tackling senior hunger by filmically emulating the spatialities of victims and volunteers.
“Isolated seniors, by definition, are difficult to find,” admonishes the voice-over narrator early in the programme. The hungry elderly are rarely willing to admit their hardship. Moreover, numerous seniors suffering from hunger are homebound, so the documentary tells us. The only person you see outside on the filmic city streets is the Meals on Wheels driver on his way to those citizens in need. Hungry in the West End does find elderly people who speak in front of the camera and it does go to their homes. Yet, here, a sense of isolation and claustrophobia prevails. Medium shots and medium close-ups of talking heads, which are not introduced by establishing shots, lock the seniors inside a narrow camera space. This space is reminiscent of the small room the elderly are allocated in their city and in society. Significantly, the Meals on Wheels concept of food delivery is rare among food banks.[4] A worker of a different association explains that most volunteers feel “safe” serving food inside a public centre but refuse to deliver it to strangers’ homes. Spatial seclusion and the anonymity it spawns inhibit the fight against senior hunger.
If the documentary aims to raise public awareness, it struggles in similar ways as the support organisations themselves. The local head of Meals on Wheels regrets their long waiting list and assumes that the number of eligible applicants is far greater than they know. Since they are not able to aid all those in need, they refrain from advertising, as it would be of no avail to attract more people. Similarly, the film never shows any food bank or other institution from outside. It gives no clue as to where in town one might find remedy against hunger and how one would recognise the place. Even inside the centres and soup kitchens, most shots recall the claustrophobic framing of the elderly’s homes. The documentary doubles the institutions’ spatial difficulties to spread support against senior hunger in the city.
Like so often in capitalist society, solutions hinge on money. Recurrently, interviewees from aid organisations emphasize how difficult funding is. The documentary itself only came to life thanks to AARP funding. Yet a study featured in the documentary suggests that food-delivery programmes could save the state a lot of money in the future. By allowing seniors to “age in place,” that is, in their homes, their twilight years might not only be happier: such schemes might also drastically reduce the number of applications for nursing homes that state medical aid covers. The findings by Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger reinforce this view: seniors threatened by hunger are also facing other health risks more than food-secure people, from depression to asthma to heart attack or failure.[5]

The documentary’s focus on the West End yields a delimited space that illustrates the spatial, social, and economic dynamics at play in the fight against senior hunger. But the issue cannot be pared down to Providence. In times of an ageing society, the number of elderly in the U.S. has more than doubled in the new millennium. Likewise, the figure of those who are at risk of going hungry in America has become twice as high as in 2001.[6] In our ever-changing world, senior hunger is here to stay – unless society acknowledges and tackles it.

[1] Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 2012. Nutrition and Healthy Ageing in the Community: Workshop Summary. Washington: The National Academies Press, 119-120.
[2] Ziliak, James P., and Craig Gunderson. 2015. The State of Senior Hunger in America 2013: An Annual Report. Report submitted to National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, 2-3, 14.
[3] Ziliak and Gunderson, 3.
 The documentary uses the North American term “food pantry.”
[5] Feeding America and National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH). 2014. Spotlight on Senior Health Adverse Health Outcomes of Food Insecure Older Americans. Referenced on:
 Ziliak and Gunderson, 2, 14.