Oct. 10--LAKELAND, Fla. -- More and more the face of hunger in Polk County is a senior overwhelmed by poor health or disability.
Many such seniors survive on little more than Social Security, people like Nellie Nesmith, 65, a lifelong Lakeland resident who lost her left leg to diabetes in 2006.
Forced to give up her job as a home health aide, Nesmith and her husband, Nathaniel, got by on her disability benefits and his Social Security.
But two years ago, like so many other aging couples, the Nesmiths took in two adult children -- a son who lost his job and a daughter whose workers' compensation insurance benefits expired after losing her warehouse job because of a neck injury.
Things got better after their daughter, Mary Bacon, finally qualified for $1,000 in monthly disability benefits.
Then, on July 5, Nathaniel Nesmith died from complications related to cancer and emphysema, his wife said, and his Social Security check disappeared.
"It got pretty bad," she said. "At the end of the month, we didn't have any money for groceries."
To fill the gap, the family started receiving a monthly box of food from Volunteers in Service to the Elderly, which supplements what it buys at Agape Food Bank with free USDA commodities.
Alice O'Reilly, VISTE's executive director, said her monthly allotment of government surplus has diminished over the past 20 years. Instead of four cans, now, each of the 1,400 people she serves each month with USDA goods receive only a single can -- items like vegetables, fruit or spaghetti and meatballs.
To stretch her food budget, O'Reilly takes advantage of salvaged goods provided by Publix Super Markets, roughly 10 pallets a week. "It's a lot of food, but it takes a lot of food" to provide for Nesmith and other seniors on her list.
"The average VISTE client gets less than $25 a month in food stamps," she said. "Typically they're 84, female and live alone. We rarely give them fresh food or milk products."
The trend that troubles O'Reilly is the increase in families like the Nesmiths -- VISTE serves about 30 such families -- whose circumstances are exacerbated by the economy. "If they didn't have our food, living on limited incomes, they really would be going without," she said.
VISTE delivers hot meals to another 220 people who are too frail to open canned goods and cook for themselves. Budget cutbacks threaten many more such seniors who rely on county government for hot meals, O'Reilly said.
Because of current and future demand, O'Reilly has asked her board of directors to consider raising the qualifying age for VISTE services to 70 from 65. A decision is expected soon.
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