In 'God's Country,' tough times lead to more hunger
Lee Marshall loves the mountains surrounding this small community three hours northeast of Sacramento. Even so, it can be hard to maintain a sunny outlook.
On a recent Friday, while waiting for his next Social Security check to arrive, Marshall said he had 24 cents to his name. He had been without the propane he needs to cook or have a warm shower for several weeks. His car broke down months ago and, because he uses an oxygen tank at home, he can’t climb underneath to fix it. He is almost 70, and if he wants to get anywhere, he often hitchhikes.
“That’s the kind of thing I go through because I don’t have any money,” he said.
Five days a week, Marshall and his 13-year-old chocolate lab, Lucas, wait in their trailer six miles outside Greenville, population 1,129, for a Plumas County employee named Art Davis to bring lunch. For dozens of seniors scattered around this breathtakingly beautiful yet impoverished mountain valley, the small plastic tray Davis delivers holds the only nutritious meal they’ll get all day.
Plumas County has one of the highest concentrations of elderly people in California. Nearly a quarter of its residents are over 65. In recent months, the number of seniors receiving subsidized meals has been shooting up. The county expects to provide nearly 50,000 meals this year, about a 16 percent increase compared to two years ago.
The suggested donation is $2.50 a meal, plus $1.50 for those who have it delivered. But many can’t pay anything.
California’s recent economic expansion hasn’t reached some counties in the state’s rural north. Plumas County’s unemployment rate in April, nearly 11 percent, was among the highest in the state – and unchanged from the previous year. Young people have been leaving for jobs elsewhere. Many of the remaining residents are aging into poverty, their fixed incomes failing to keep up with the high cost of food, rent, transportation and heat.
According to a recent UCLA study, over half the single seniors in Plumas and neighboring Nevada and Sierra counties do not have the income to sustain a “minimally decent standard of living.”
Financially squeezed, some rural counties are actually distributing fewer meals than they did a few years ago. In those counties, more need means longer waiting lists – or more people flat-out turned away.
Juanita Rajanen, who coordinates the senior nutrition program in neighboring Tehama County, said her waiting list for a daily meal has been “growing and growing.” The county serves meals to more than 100 seniors, and has about three dozen more on a waiting list.
Social Security and senior nutrition programs were created to ensure that the elderly would not have to face hunger. But increasing numbers of poor seniors, rising food prices and a series of federal and state cuts to nutrition programs “have combined to create what’s really a crisis in many communities,” said Gary Passmore, vice president of the Congress of California Seniors.
Passmore’s organization asked the Legislature to restore the $5.4 million cut from senior nutrition programs several years ago. In a disappointment to advocates, the budget recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown increases spending by just $2 million.
Plumas has long made an effort to make sure that every senior who asks for a meal gets one, even kicking in money from its general fund. It has had to cut some corners, including sometimes using lower-quality ingredients, said Mimi Hall, the county public health director.
Art Davis hears some of his clients grumble about that. But he doesn’t ask too many questions of the 50 low-income seniors he delivers meals to each weekday.
“I figure it’s none of my business” why they need the meals, he explained. Davis, 70, dodges deer and wild turkeys to reach the trailer parks, tiny apartments and peeling shacks where clients like Marshall live. For many, Davis will be the sole person they see each day.
A former sawmill worker who took the delivery job seven years ago to bring in extra cash, Davis is patient and cordial with his clients. He carries a bag of treats for the many dogs on his route. He makes sure people seem OK before he moves on. Once, he found a woman who could not get out of her chair, and ended up calling paramedics.
On a recent Friday, he stopped his car at the small trailer of 84-year-old Inga Lewman. He set that day’s meal, a plastic tray of ham and peas, on her table.
She expressed some frustration with the county food: The rice that accompanies some meals is “dry, dry, dry,” and the vegetables are sometimes too hard for her to chew.
“I don’t have no teeth,” Lewman said. “I’m too poor for teeth.”
Nevertheless, Lewman, who has had strokes and breathes with the help of an oxygen tube, depends on the meals.
“It’s either eat or die,” she said. “This is it. I live on that.”
“Don’t be mad at me,” she said to Davis, after detailing her complaints.
“I’m never mad at you,” he said, smiling. He feels she has more right to grouse than some, since she pays the suggested daily donation.
Next door, Lee Marshall and Lucas hurried out to meet him. The lunches, Marshall said, “keep me in a positive attitude.”
He had gotten a ride to the Greenville food pantry earlier that morning. There, he waited alongside a few dozen other people in similar straits – it was toward the end of the month, and their Social Security and disability payments weren’t stretching.
“We’re serving more and more people all the time,” said Linda Hampton, one of the volunteers there.
Marshall is diabetic, so he planned to give away the giant bag of Froot Loops and brownie mix he found in the donated food bag. He would eat the grapes and saltines, though.
“They give you what they’ve got,” he said, shrugging.
“This place up here, it’s so poor, the food just doesn’t get donated to it,” said Debbie Housen, who manages the senior nutrition site in Greenville, a narrow room in a low-income housing complex. Many seniors used to eat their lunches there. Then state budget cuts led the county to shut down the kitchen four years ago. Now, the meals are prepared elsewhere and delivered to people’s homes.
Housen, who also depends on a fixed income, drives Marshall and others to the food pantry on Fridays.
“You worked all your life to look forward to this, you know?” she said. “It’s really sad.”
Later, at a stop in the Greenville grocery store, she and Marshall walked around lamenting the price of everything from Pam cooking spray ($3.49) to a 4-ounce can of shrimp ($4).
“The prices are so catastrophic, it’s unbelievable,” Marshall said.
A bottle of his favorite diet root beer was on sale for 99 cents. That was a good deal, he proclaimed, a hint of longing in his voice. But outside his budget. At the beginning of the month, he’d get a Social Security check for $950, $100 in veterans’ benefits and $16 in food stamps, he said. Half the money would go to pay off loans he took out for a business he no longer owns.
A talkative fellow, Marshall introduces himself to visitors with a cheerful “welcome to my mountains.” He moved here after he returned from a stint with the Marines in Vietnam. He spent a year trying to “put my skull back together,” then studied forestry, he said.
This place up here, it’s so poor, the food just doesn’t get donated to it.
Debbie Housen, manager of senior nutrition site in Greenville
His travails reflect the dichotomy of life here, especially for the poor. The price of peace and quiet can be long drives for cheaper groceries and medical specialists. Public transit is scarce. Winter heating bills are exorbitant.
Many seniors catch rides into Susanville or Reno to do their grocery shopping, finding the hours-long journeys to Walmart or Costco worth the savings. Davis takes people on runs to those cities two Saturdays a month.
Greenville’s subsidized meals are prepared in the county seat of Quincy, 30 miles away. While Marshall and his counterparts wait in their homes, dozens of Quincy seniors gather in the dome-shaped Veterans Hall for exercise classes and bingo before partaking in the county-provided lunch. Everyone at the Quincy site has their unofficial assigned seat.
“I like the fellowship,” said Nancy Wertenberger, 81. If someone is missing from their seat one day, she calls to make sure everything is OK.
A sort of chin-up optimism abounds, at the senior lunch and even at the food bank. But the cheerful countenances can quickly give way to recounting of harder realities. An adult child who died rather than incur a hospital bill, a home returned to the bank, a job lost and not replaced. The mills have mostly closed. Many businesses on Main Street in Quincy are shuttered.
Now, the pound is caring for pets cash-strapped seniors can no longer afford to feed, said Johanna Downey, executive director of the Plumas Crisis Intervention and Resource Center. Downey said her organization has begun giving out free pet food.
“A lot of these people, that’s their only form of connection to humanity, through their pets,” she said. “Sometimes they would rather buy the dog food than feed themselves.”
Despite his financial limitations, Marshall tries to lend a helping hand however he can. He gives talks about clouds and trees to local preschoolers. He offers the walnuts and raisins he receives from the food pantry to people who like them more. He barbecues chicken to share with neighbors when he finds a way to afford it.
“People look out for each other in the mountains,” he said. “There’s only one way. We look out for each other. Period.”
Wiener is a writer for the Center for Health Reporting at the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics at the University of Southern California. The center receives support from the Gary and Mary West Foundation to report on senior issues.