9 million elderly across the country can’t afford to eat. 750,000 are in Florida.

Josefina Hernández, 73, receives food from Meals on Wheels of South Florida. Meals on Wheels offers food to 2.4 million U.S. elderly every year, including 65,000 in Florida.
Josefina Hernández, 73, receives food from Meals on Wheels of South Florida. Meals on Wheels offers food to 2.4 million U.S. elderly every year, including 65,000 in Florida. el Nuevo Herald

Janet Burke, 71, opens the door of her Hollywood apartment with a smile. That’s how she greets Britt Weatherhead every Friday when he delivers a box of food that will keep hunger away.

Cheese, milk, bread and fruit are some of the items Burke finds in the box. Five frozen meals complete the Meals on Wheels delivery.

“It would be very hard if I did not have this,” Burke said as she held a frozen tray of chicken and rice. But her favorites are the cannelloni, she added.

Burke is one of the nearly 9 million elderly people at risk of hunger in the United States. In Florida, with the highest percentage of people 60 and older, more than 750,000 elderly need food assistance, according to experts.

The problems confronting the elderly have become one of the hot topics for candidates this election year. Candidates in South Florida have pointed to the needs of the elderly as one of the key concerns voiced by voters.

“South Florida was the mecca for retirees,” said Mark Adler, regional executive director of Meals on Wheels. “But now many people are suffering to get to the end of the month.”

One out of every five state residents are older than 65. That makes Florida the state with the highest number of elderly. Only 15.6 percent of U.S. residents are older than 65.

Although the number of elderly has been growing, their purchasing power has not kept pace, according to several reports. The percentage of elderly who declared bankruptcy across the United States rose fivefold since 1991, according to the study “Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society.”

Food delivery services like the one that benefits Burke are designed for people with low incomes. Meals on Wheels offers food to 2.4 million U.S. elderly every year, including 65,000 in Florida.

About 38 percent of the food offered by Meals on Wheels around the country is subsidized by the U.S. government under the 1965 Older Americans Act. In Florida, that number rises to 50 percent .

The only requirements are to be 60 or older and be unable to leave home without assistance.

Burke, a New Jersey native, lives under the poverty line and says that even though she still has to buy food, the deliveries help to keep her from “spending more.”

Although Meals on Wheels accepts donations, Burke pays nothing. The weekly box brought by Weatherhead costs about $50.

Weatherhead, 72, a retired volunteer from Seattle, said he knows of no case where anyone has asked why the beneficiaries of Meals on Wheels are receiving subsidized food.

“They are really trapped” at home, said Weatherhead, one of the 250 volunteers who distribute the Meals on Wheels packages around South Florida. “Helping these people has become part of my life.”

“Good morning,” he says in Spanish when he meets another of his regular clients. It’s one of the few Spanish expressions he knows.

Josefina Hernández, 73, came with her husband from Puerto Rico in 2005 “because of health.” Now they live in low-income housing in Hollywood and receive the weekly Meals on Wheels package.

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Josefina Hernández, 73, is one of the thousands of elderly Florida residents who receive food from Meals on Wheels of South Florida. Roberto Koltun el Nuevo Herald

“With our income and the price of medicines, we’re tight,” she said. Even so, she tries to donate money to Meals on Wheels whenever possible because she is “very happy” with the service.

“Super good!” she told Weatherhead.

Day centers also offer subsidized food to the elderly

Not all elderly people who need access to food can benefit from the program, but Meals on Wheels also offers lunch at centers for seniors. But in that case, not all the elderly who benefit have low incomes.

Anyone registered at one of the centers can request, one day in advance, one of the meals prepared with federal funds. In exchange, the program asks for a donation, which is not obligatory. The average donation collected per meal is 7 cents, compared to the real cost of $8.

At the Southwest Focal Point Senior Center in Pembroke Pines, dozens of elderly finished their salsa class and sat down at tables for a lunch of rice, beans and hot dogs.

“I like it a lot because you eat with other people, and that’s important,” said Elena Segal, 84, an Argentine who moved to South Florida after her husband died seven years ago.

A sign in the dinning hall says the suggested donation for each lunch is $2 but “no one will be denied food if they can’t contribute.”

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Mark Adler, executive director of Meals on Wheels, helps with food distribution as part of a program to aid the elderly population. Roberto Koltun el Nuevo Herald

Lack of funds places more people on waiting list

More than 1,000 elderly are on the waiting list for receiving the food packages that Meals on Wheels delivers to homes, and the number is growing every month, Adler said.

The problem is the lack of funds, he added.

Meals on Wheels currently serves 16 million meals less per year than in 2005, because the costs of food and transportation have risen while the funding “remains stagnant,” Adler said.

“It makes more economic sense (to offer subsidized food) and keep the elderly healthy and out of the hospitals,” he added.

Meals on Wheels figures show that the cost of providing meals to one elderly person for one year equals the cost of a one-day stay in a hospital.

And a healthy and balanced meal is a direct benefit to the health of clients, Adler added.

“Are they going to stop the service?” asked a concerned Carlos Peña, another Meals on Wheels recipient, when he saw Weatherhead with a journalist.

Peña breathed a sigh of relief when Weatherhead assured him that was not the case.

“Good,” he said. “The service is great.”

Follow Marta Oliver Craviotto on Twitter: @MartaOCraviotto