Table No. 1 had reached a consensus: There were thumbs up on the salad bar and thumbs down on the macaroni and cheese, which resembled a ball of melted plastic and, diners said, tasted about as appetizing.
Others griped about bland vegetables served straight from the can. And the vote was practically unanimous on milk: None of the elderly residents enjoying a low-cost group meal at the Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Center in Northwest Washington would drink the stuff because of lactose intolerance.
“And they need to change the variety of juices they give us,” Ann Cook, 79, chimed in as others at Thursday’s communal lunch nodded in agreement.
A few feet away, a more scientific tabulation of seniors’ eating preferences was underway. As part of a novel program to alleviate hunger among seniors by monitoring food waste almost the way restaurants do, the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger helped diners sort their leftovers into trays to be weighed, analyzed and ultimately composted. The foundation — whose program has been set up in three senior centers so far — intends to return the compost so people in the senior center can plant vegetables this spring. The pilot project — which the nonprofit group hopes to reproduce nationwide — is one of many ways city officials and nonprofits have joined forces to address hunger among aging residents.
“The number of seniors who are hungry is going up,” said Enid Borden, a former Meals on Wheels employee who is the founder and chief executive of the foundation. She said many seniors — as with low-income people of all ages — have trouble obtaining a sufficient amount of food of any kind. Others buy things to eat but have trouble getting enough healthy food, contributing to a crisis in which people can be obese and malnourished at the same time.
“Sometimes, ironically, people are hungry and obese because they’re eating the wrong thing,” Borden said.
One in six seniors — 9.3 million Americans — struggles with hunger, said Jenny Bertolette, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria-based Meals on Wheels Association of America. She said the number has nearly doubled since 2001 and grown 44 percent since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. Nearly half of America’s seniors also live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line — less than $23,000 a year.
The nation’s capital has one of the highest rates of aging adults living in poverty. In the District, more than 15 percent of seniors have incomes below the federal poverty level, which is defined as $11,770 per single-person household. That’s higher than Mississippi’s senior poverty rate. In Maryland, the figure is nearly 9 percent of people older than 65, while about 11 percent of seniors in Virginia live below the poverty line, Census Bureau data show.
About 14,600 District seniors receive food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Economic Security Administration data show. The average amount of assistance is $122 per month for a single-person household.
“We have heard of tough choices from seniors, like ‘Should I pay for food or pay my heating bill? Should I pay for food or my medications?’ ” said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions.
Ashbrook said hunger among the elderly population in the District is driven by several factors, including stark socioeconomic inequalities that make it difficult for many to afford basics. The District also has a disproportionately higher number of older residents who live alone, a phenomenon that likely masks the extent of the problem.
“It shows you how seniors are struggling to put food on the table,” Ashbrook said.
The city’s Office on Aging expanded the home-delivered meal program in fiscal 2014, spokesman Darrell Jackson Jr. said in an e-mail. The program — carried out by Mom’s Meals and Catholic Charities — serves residents older than 60. But funding remains the same in fiscal 2015 even as need has grown, he said, forcing the agency to halt new enrollments. As of Jan. 27, there were more than 2,300 recipients of home-delivered meals, with 275 people on a waiting list.
Others, such as diners at Hattie Holmes, participate in the city’s congregant meals program, which is open to anyone 60 years or older, regardless of income. The programs serves more than 5,200 people a day at 53 locations, Jackson said.
Tight budgets and growing need are what led the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger to focus on ways to economize on group meals by using technology employed by restaurants to identify and reduce waste.
Matthew J. Levine, chief operating officer at the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, said the nonprofit modified commercial waste-tracking software used by restaurants for its program. The software allows them to track patterns of use at the center so that the prepared meals more closely match demand, and they monitor what participants are eating and throwing away. The input has already led to some tweaking of the menu, and composting also cuts down on the amount of waste sent to landfills, he said.
At Hattie Holmes, diners welcomed the new program.
“When we start growing our own vegetables, that will be a real plus for us,” said Blanche Hamilton, 70, who has been coming to the $1-a-plate congregant meals — a.k.a. Meals with Friends — at Hattie Holmes for about six years.
Cassandra Hardison, 67, a retired city official, said she hopes that the program leads to more-palatable food.
“It needs to be fresher,” said Hardison, who brought her own food to the friendly group meal because she’s been disappointed before. “I would never give this to my grandmother to eat. I’m glad we’ve got this program so maybe the food will change.”
Cook, a retired cafeteria worker, said part of the problem was that because of the dietary restrictions for most seniors, the food was almost devoid of salt and seasoning. Others said the lack of variety was a problem, too.
“Overall, the chicken is very good,” said Beverly Prince, 70, a retired government worker. “We just don’t want it all the time.”