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PART V. JIM & NANCY PIKE | January 5, 2014

Swallowing their pride to avoid going hungry

Across Maine, there's an increasing number of people like Jim and Nancy Pike of Alfred, seniors whose declining health and limited finances have put them among the so-called 'food insecure.' 'They are the hidden hungry … and they don't want anybody to know.'

Gillian Graham

| Staff Writer
ggraham@pressherald.com
hungry

Jim, 65, and Nancy Pike, 77, in front of their 1970's trailer in Alfred. They worry about mounting repair costs on their the trailer more than they worry about getting enough food. A tarp covers a leaky roof, but they’re not sure it will last the winter. “It’s on its last legs. We can’t keep up the property like we could,” Nancy Pike said. “He’s handy but there’s a lot he can’t do now. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

ALFRED — The first time Nancy Pike went to a food pantry, she could hardly believe she was there.

After working for decades and raising nine children without government assistance, there she was, asking for help doing the most basic of tasks: feeding herself and her husband.

It’s a memory that is sharp and painful, even two years later.

“I get emotional about that,” she says, turning her face down and covering her mouth with her hand as she recalls the first time she asked for food. Tears slip down her face.

Hunger

Jim and Nancy Pike have dinner at home. The meal included chicken sandwiches and chicken soup. The chicken came from the monthly Good Shepherd Food-Bank Senior Food Mobile in Alfred.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

“I was always on the other side when I worked. Now I have to beg.”

Faced with health problems that prevent them from working, Nancy Pike, 77, and Jim Pike, 65, struggle to get by on their monthly Social Security check. By the time they pay their bills, they often find themselves with little or no money left for groceries.

Their trips to the food pantry are a closely guarded secret they keep even from their nine children and 25 grandchildren.

“They think I’m strong and I think that’s a weakness,” Nancy Pike says.

The Pikes, who live in a tidy but old trailer in Alfred, have no choice but to turn to an emergency food system that is increasingly stressed as a growing number of seniors in Maine and across the country need help putting food on the table.

In Maine, the number of seniors on food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, reached 29,571 in October – a 32 percent increase since 2010. Seniors now account for 12 percent of food stamp recipients, a figure which will climb as the population in Maine – which already has the nation’s oldest median age of 37.5 – continues to rise.

Experts in Maine believe there are at least 24,000 Maine seniors, or about 8 percent of the senior population, who don’t have enough food to maintain a healthy diet, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “food insecurity.” However, the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, a Virginia nonprofit organization, puts the percentage of hungry Maine seniors higher, at more than 14 percent, when seniors who are “marginally food insecure” are included.

But these figures vastly understate the true degree of hunger among the elderly, according to those who work on the issue. This is true, the experts say, because the majority of seniors don’t want to ask for public assistance, and many of those who are willing to seek help don’t know where to look or whether they even qualify for programs like food stamps or food pantries.

In addition, statistics on hunger among the elderly are sketchy, inconsistent and incomplete, in part because hunger prevention programs have historically focused on children and families, which has driven funding and research toward those groups rather than older Americans. Complicating matters, public agencies and private groups that work on hunger don’t always use the same definitions. The first national report on senior hunger wasn’t published until 2008, and there have been no comprehensive state-level studies of hunger among elders.

An estimated 8.8 million seniors in the United States now face the threat of hunger, an 88 percent increase since 2001, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.

“In 2001, we found one in nine seniors faced the threat of hunger. That’s now one in six,” said Enid Borden, founder and president of the nonprofit National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. “I call that the decade of shame. We should be ashamed that in those 10 years we’ve seen an 88 percent increase in the number of seniors affected by hunger. It’s a national problem with local and state implications.”

in their words

an interview with James & Nancy Pike

‘SHOULDN’T HAPPEN IN OUR COUNTRY’

Ted Trainer, director of Healthy Aging at the Southern Maine Agency on Aging questions why hunger is tolerated among the elderly in America, which is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. “The fact is, hunger shouldn’t happen in our country today, no matter what age they are,” he said. “The older generation is reluctant to ask for help, but they’re suffering just as much.”

Maine seniors who find themselves struggling to feed themselves – and who seek out help – use a variety of sources to get food, including food stamps or monthly food bags from the federally funded Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Others turn to food pantries, which report record numbers of clients. Last year, Good Shepherd Food Bank distributed more than 13 million pounds of food to pantries and soup kitchens across Maine. The food bank - and most food pantries - track the number of clients, but not their ages or backgrounds.

“Food pantries and soup kitchens have been providing food, but no one has looked at data to see who the clients are,” Trainer said. “The people providing the services are too busy providing services.”

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Volunteers with the Commodity Supplemental Food Program in Alfred prepare to load bags of food into cars for needy seniors. Once a month, 307 people show up to pick up food provided by the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income seniors. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Statewide, 2,902 seniors receive food from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides 30 pounds of basic foods on a monthly basis. Another 1,200 are on waiting lists and a state official believes the program could face cuts.

There are 35,000 low-income seniors in the state. Experts say seniors living above the poverty line are vulnerable to hunger because they don’t have access to government assistance programs like food stamps that help mitigate the risk of food insecurity.

The sharpest growth in food insecurity in seniors is among those whose income is above the poverty line, or are living alone, disabled, divorced, unemployed, younger than 70 and those with resident grandchildren, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.

Hunger in the senior population can also lead to health problems, including obesity, in people who are not getting enough nutritious food. Seniors experiencing food insecurity are significantly more likely to have lower intakes of energy and major vitamins and to be in poor or fair health. A 64-year-old suffering from hunger is likely to have the limitations of a 78-year-old, Trainer said.

It can be especially challenging to get food to seniors in Maine, in particular rural residents who often live far from grocery stores, food pantries and soup kitchens.

The Pikes first went to the food pantry a couple years ago when, faced with lost income because of health problems, they found they couldn’t quite get by on their own anymore. Those are common reasons seniors in Maine need to turn to food pantries for help, according to experts.

Asking for help was a brave step that experts say many seniors are reluctant to take. Sometimes it’s because of a perceived stigma against taking handouts, other times because seniors aren’t aware they qualify for assistance, according to experts.

“They are the hidden hungry. It’s a segment of the population we often think of as well taken care of,” Borden said. “The problem is because they are hidden and they don’t want anybody to know, it’s an issue that gets swept under the rug.”

THEY WORKED UNTIL THEY COULDN’T

Nancy Pike grew up in Lynn, Mass., where she graduated from a Catholic high school on a Sunday. On Monday, she married a man with whom she would have six children and an unhappy, abusive marriage. She was always the breadwinner in the family.

Jim Pike was born in Sanford, but grew up in New Hampshire before moving to Lynn, Mass., at 14 to live with his mother. He left school after ninth grade to work and support his family. At 18, he took a job cooking in the local diner.

Nancy Pike, by then the mother of six and ready to leave her first marriage, was waiting tables at the diner.

“That first night he was there, he got a plate of clams and sat up at the counter,” she said. “We shared his clams and that did it. We had supper together every night.”

From then on, they were a pair and Jim Pike raised Nancy’s children as if they were his own. They would go on to have three more children together, getting by with the money they earned working multiple jobs and the occasional box of surplus food from the town office. It wasn’t easy living in the projects of Lynn, but they were happy to be together, Nancy Pike said. The family moved to Maine in 1974 when Jim Pike got a job as a herdsman at Hussey Farm in Berwick.

“I’m a city slicker. He took me up there with 40 cows and no streetlights,” Nancy Pike said. “I learned fast. It was good for my kids. We kept them busy.”

The family eventually settled in Acton where they grew their own vegetables and often cooked together. Jim Pike worked several jobs at once, whatever it took to support his family.

“I did everything. I cut wood, took care of people’s property,” he said. “I drove a truck for 16 years for Meals on Wheels in Sanford.”

Nancy Pike provided day care in her home for 30 years, a job she loved and still misses. Now she spends her time knitting children’s sweaters to donate to families who also use the food pantry.

“We can’t work and we want to,” she said.

There were times money was especially tight, but the Pikes always found a way to get by. There was never much extra money to stash away in a savings account. They cashed in their only retirement savings – less than $2,000 – to pay bills after Jim Pike was laid off from a job.

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Jim and Nancy Pike walk into a Supermarket in Sanford. The Pike's struggle to get by on Social Security and depend on food panties and food stamps.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Jim and Nancy Pike look over groceries at a Supermarket in Sanford.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Every once in a while, the electricity would be shut off for a day or two until they could pay the bill. They’d cook with a camp stove and try to make it fun for the kids.

“We’d play ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” Nancy Pike said. “But we’re too old for that now.”

While they were never wealthy, they lived comfortably and had fun together, Nancy Pike said. They strove to pass on a strong work ethic to their children, who helped with chores without complaint.

Nancy and Jim Pike always did the grocery shopping together, and he would honk the horn when they got home to let the kids know it was time to carry groceries inside.

“He still toots the horn when we get home and I say ‘no one’s coming,’” she said, laughing and nudging her husband’s arm as they sat in their kitchen recently, looking at old family photos.

Nancy Pike worked until she was 59 and was forced to stop after she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. She also has pain in her hips and legs that sometimes grows so intense she ends up in the emergency room.

Jim Pike kept on working, most recently as a handyman at Wells-Ogunquit Motel. With that paycheck and his wife’s income from Social Security, they seemed to get by well enough.

Then Jim Pike had a stroke and a heart attack and everything changed.

Hunger

Nancy and Jim Pike shop for groceries in Sanford last fall, and, at top, hold hands during dinner. Like a third of Maine people age 65 or older, the Pikes rely solely on Social Security to make ends meet, but after paying for prescriptions and household bills, they have little money remaining for food. After recent federal cuts, they still qualify for $64 a month in food stamps, but they admit “we’re living on the edge now.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

LIVING ON THE EDGE

After his heart attack, Jim Pike spent a month at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Nancy Pike – who had long ago given up driving because of her health – visited as often as possible, but also spent hours on the phone dealing with doctors and insurance issues.

He lost the use of his right arm, putting him out of work permanently.

They now spend much of their time shuttling back and forth to medical appointments in Portland and Sanford. They got rid of an old truck in favor of a more fuel-efficient sedan, but it’s still old and occasionally needs repair. They have a $65 a week car payment, debt they wish they could have avoided.

The Pikes don’t eat out anymore, save for the occasional stop at McDonald’s when they’ve been out all day at appointments. There they can buy two hamburgers and two cups of coffee for $4. Nancy Pike’s weekly splurge is on the Sunday newspaper.

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Nancy Pike holds her chicken sandwich during dinner. The chicken came from the monthly Good Shepherd Food-Bank Senior Food Mobile in Alfred.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Jim Pike has chicken soup during dinner.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

“When I go to Market Basket I want everything I see,” she said. “We shop differently than we used to. The little things like (extra) food and stuff, we can make do without.”

Like 33 percent of Mainers 65 and older, the Pikes live only on Social Security. The combined $1,278 a month they receive in Social Security goes fast: to the car payments, electric bill, propane for the stove, oil for heat, filling the car with gas and the other regular bills.

They each take at least 10 prescription medications, which at a co-pay cost of $1.75 or more per prescription, adds up quickly.

As hard as they try to budget wisely and save, something always seems to come up. They still owe $700 in property taxes for the year.

“We haven’t paid the taxes yet and I don’t see how we can,” Nancy Pike said. “It’s that or the fuel.”

They will get some help with heating oil costs from the Maine Low Income Heating Assistance Program this year, about enough to buy 150 gallons of oil.

But before that came through, Jim Pike would fill a 5-gallon container with kerosene to put in the tank, just enough to turn the heat on low occasionally to keep the chill away when nights grew cold in October. In November they found a company to deliver 50 gallons of oil at a total cost of $202. It meant not paying another bill that month.

They worry about mounting repair costs on their 1970s trailer more than they worry about getting enough food. A tarp covers a leaky roof, but they’re not sure it will last the winter.

“It’s on its last legs. We can’t keep up the property like we could,” Nancy Pike said. “He’s handy but there’s a lot he can’t do now.”

Because the Pikes’ yearly income of about $15,000 puts them right around the federal poverty level for a family of two, they qualify for some assistance with food costs. They receive roughly 30 pounds of food a month from the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program and $64 monthly from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.

The Pikes used to qualify for $200 a month in food stamps, but that dropped to $66 when they paid off their mortgage last year. When SNAP benefits dropped in November to all recipients because of federal cuts, Nancy and Jim Pike were relieved they were only cut to $64 a month.

“It’s kind of scary because we’re living on the edge now,” she said.

A record 252,000 Mainers qualified for SNAP during an average month in 2012, a 56 percent increase from before the recession in 2007. More than 29,300 of them were seniors.

But many of the people who qualify for food stamps still find themselves short on food by the end of the month. They turn to food pantries and soup kitchens, which from all corners of the state report a record level of need.

“That’s part of the problem with trying to solve this huge problem of hunger with a system that’s supposed to be an emergency food system. We’re not an emergency food system anymore,” said Clara Whitney, communications and advocacy manager for Good Shepherd Food Bank.. “Families and seniors depend on their local food pantry on an ongoing basis, month after month.”

‘ONLY SCRATCHING THE SURFACE’

The Pikes find themselves making regular trips to the York County Shelter Programs in Afred. They drive there several times a month, either to pick up a box of food from the pantry or supplies from two other programs designed to get food to seniors in need.

Up on the hill overlooking the town, the shelter programs property has become the staging ground for two programs – distribution of food provided by the federal government and a monthly food mobile – that help keep the Pikes and hundreds of other seniors fed each month.

Once a month, 307 people show up to pick up the 30 pounds of food provided by the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income seniors. The program, always at risk for government cuts and never expanding, has a waiting list of more than 155 people in York County.

Maine, which joined just over two years ago, is now one of 39 states that receive food from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Statewide, 2,902 seniors receive the monthly food bags. Another 1,200 are on waiting lists.

Jason Hall, director of the Emergency Food Assistance Program of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said he has asked the federal government for enough food to feed another 2,000 seniors a month next year, but he instead expects to see a decrease of about 25 seniors based on the decreases Maine has seen in recent years.

After the program was funded in 2012 with a short-term continuing resolution, Congress agreed to a full-year continuing resolution that provided $182 million in funding for fiscal year 2013. That was nearly $5.2 million less than the previous year.

That’s when Hall was notified the number of Mainers who could use the program would be reduced from 2,937 to 2,902. The year before, Maine had to cut 60 people from the program.

Hall said “the last thing I need is a reduction in how many I can serve when the need is so great.”

“There are over 35,000 low-income seniors in Maine,” he said. “We’re only scratching the surface with this program.”

‘WE SEE THE FACE OF HUNGER’

On another day each month, hundreds of seniors line up in their cars in the early morning hours to wait for Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Senior Food Mobile. Three hours before the foodmobile pulls up – stocked with fresh produce, frozen meat and other groceries – the seniors sit in their cars, some chatting through open windows, others listening to the radio.

Hunger

Jim Pike, 65, drives to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program in Alfred to pick up food. Jim suffered a stroke and a heart attach and now depends on food pantries and food stamps. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Their cars fill a field and snake down the road in both directions. No one wants to miss out on the box of food, loaded into their cars by volunteers. In October, 237 boxes of food – one per family – were handed out in less than two hours.

“We see the face of hunger drive up the hill every month,” said Dick Ogden of Shapleigh, who with his wife, Carol, organizes the senior foodmobile and supplemental food distributions in York County.

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Jim and Nancy Pike of Alfred talk with Carol Ogden who along with her husband Dick, organizes the senior food mobile and supplemental food distributions in York County as they pull up in their car for food.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

On a cool Thursday morning in October, the Pikes were in one of the first dozen cars to arrive for the senior foodmobile event. It was more than two hours before the food truck would arrive but they know supplies run short when the line is long.

Nancy Pike passed the time knitting and talking. Jim Pike, like always, mostly listened.

“We’re broke the week before the end of the month. What we get today really helps,” she said. “This isn’t an isolated case. All of us up here are in the same boat.”

After a long wait, the Pikes leave with a box loaded with fresh produce they find is too expensive at the grocery store: vine-ripened tomatoes and plump cantaloupes. There’s also coleslaw mix, bottled water, canned carrots and peaches, pasta sauce, pasta, long grain rice, frozen bread and frozen chicken.

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Nancy, 77, and Jim Pike, 65, unpack food they received from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

It’s healthier than most of the donated food the Pikes receive, a common occurrence at food pantries across the state that are struggling to keep shelves stocked. There’s always plenty of pasta and day-old bread at the food pantry.

“It ends up being a lot of carbohydrates that are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor,” said Whitney, of the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which tries to get fresh produce into food pantries through its statewide Mainers Feeding Mainers farm program. “What we’re finding is a lot of times families that lack resources and access to enough food aren’t getting the correct nutrition for proper health.”

The Pikes often come home with foods they know they should avoid because they are both diabetic. But they’re grateful and use whatever they get. They say it’s like Christmas morning when they come home with a box to unpack.

“When you go to the food pantry you get all the bread you want, but you can’t fill up on that. Whatever you get, you do something with,” Nancy Pike said. “We eat a lot of food we shouldn’t now because that’s what they give you. We used to get more fresh fruits and vegetables, but we mostly have canned now.”

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Nancy Pike, 77, and Jim Pike, 65, unpack the food they received from the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program one weekend last fall. Because the Pikes’ annual income of about $15,000 puts them right around the federal poverty level for a family of two, they qualify for some assistance with food costs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

THEY KNOW HOW TO STRETCH A MEAL

The fresh fruits and vegetables are what Nancy Pike misses the most. They gave up gardening when their health declined. This year, they each got a $50 farm stand credit through a local program, which they used at a North Berwick farm to buy tomatoes and corn. Jim Pike took the corn off the cobs so they could freeze it to use later. They made sauce with the tomatoes.

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Nancy looks on as Jim puts away food they received from the Commodity Supplemental Food.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Nancy and Jim's food cupboard.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

The Pikes shop carefully with their food stamps and whatever other grocery money they have for the month. They plan their meals around the food they get from the various programs, shopping only for the most basic ingredients and always cooking from scratch.

They don’t buy name brands. They never buy processed food. And there are no impulse buys when they go to the store.

“Having so many kids, I know how to stretch a meal,” Nancy Pike is fond of saying.

She spends hours each month poring over sale fliers and clipping coupons to stretch her grocery budget. They shop all over: at Market Basket, Hannaford, Walgreens, the dollar store. Wherever they can find the best deal.

Hunger

Nancy Pike brings an envelope filled with coupons with her when she goes shopping.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Just like when they were raising their family, the Pikes always grocery shop together. On a recent trip to Hannaford in Springvale, she steers the cart slowly through the store, laughing as he teases her about being a bad driver.

Their list is short, but it will still use up half of their food stamps for the month. Bananas, canned beans, frozen lima beans, sugar and flour, chicken bouillon and gravy mix all go in the cart, selected based on price. They skip over other things that, even with a coupon, can be found cheaper elsewhere. They don’t buy any meat because none is on sale.

When they get to the baking aisle, Jim Pike shakes his head as he picks out the cheapest flour. Always the baker in the family – he used to make many loaves of bread each week – he prefers a more expensive brand. They gave that up years ago.

“I know you like the name brand better,” Nancy Pike says to her husband. They move on to the next item on the list.

When they finally make their way out of the store, Nancy Pike jokes that it looks like they bought a lot. But she knows they really didn’t. It’s just enough to stretch that chicken in her freezer into chicken and dumplings, stew and chicken croquettes.

Though it’s hard sometimes, the Pikes laugh often and enjoy their time together. They try not to worry too much, confident they’ll figure something out if they need to.

If there comes a night when there is no food in the house and their stomachs are empty, Nancy Pike has a backup plan: they’ll go to one of the free soup kitchen dinners she sees listed in the local newspaper.

“If we had to, that’s where we’d be,” she said.

But Nancy Pike’s biggest fear is not for herself. It’s for other seniors and families who she believes depend even more on food programs that seem to constantly face cuts.

She feels the only thing she can do – but hasn’t until now – is speak out about what a lifesaver these programs can be. She wants people to understand the seniors who use them aren’t lazy, just in need of a little help.

She also wants others to know about the tremendous generosity of the volunteers who greet her with a smile every time she walks through the food pantry door.

“They do more than they realize for people,” she said. “They don’t make you feel like you’re begging.”

When she hears about government cuts to food stamps and other programs, Nancy Pike shakes her head and laments that “the government isn’t for poor people.” She wishes more people would come down to the food pantry and see how vulnerable the seniors are who depend on boxes of donated food to get by.

“If you see that many old people there, you know there’s a problem,” she said.

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hunger

HUNGER AND THE ELDERLY

Food-giveaway organizers see need firsthand

Volunteers Dick and Carol Ogden of Shapleigh make it easy for hungry seniors in York County 'to get help with dignity.'