A civilization is judged by how they care for their elders and the weak.
Seniors food program on chopping block
Food bank chief lobbies against Bush budget cut
A 2-pound block of cheese. Two boxes of cereal. Two pounds of rice. Three cans of orange juice. Three cans of evaporated milk. Two cans of apricots. Four cans of mixed vegetables. A can of beef. And a jar of peanut butter.
It's a rather modest monthly grocery list, but its uncertain fate has caused anxiety among thousands of low-income seniors who rely on the cardboard boxes filled with food they receive from the federal government.
For the second year in a row, President Bush has proposed eliminating the Commodity Supplemental Food Program as a way to save money and avoid duplicating nutritional programs for seniors. The program costs $106 million and provides food boxes to about 500,000 seniors, pregnant or postpartum women, and children. It currently serves 57,000 Californians, including 9,600 in San Francisco and 1,470 in Sonoma. The program currently isn't operated in any other Bay Area counties.
Last year, Congress refused to do away with the program, but agreed to trim the number of recipients by about 10 percent.
The vast majority of the recipients are seniors, who qualify by being at least 60 years old and making $1,100 or less each month. Hundreds of them lined up outside a recreation center in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood on the morning of March 2 to collect their boxes, filled with food purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of the people pushed carts or dollies to lug their provisions back to their apartments. Many had strong opinions about the president's proposal to get rid of the program.
"He's sending much too much money to Iraq," said Ron Beverly, 67, who has been collecting the boxes every month for seven years. "They could take a few billion and send it this way and feed people here.
"This is really the only way I can survive," he added. "The cost of living in San Francisco is so high that we need this."
Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said the program operates in parts of 32 states and Washington, D.C. -- and that the president supports shifting those who receive the boxes to food stamps or other nationwide programs.
She added that the president's proposal includes money for states to publicize the changes and help the seniors transition to other programs.
But that rings false to Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco Food Bank, which took over management of the program in 2004 at the request of the city.
"We think it's a terrible idea," he said. "It's a great program. It's cost effective, and it serves a group of people -- low-income seniors who are still living in their homes, cooking for themselves, taking care of themselves -- that really have no other option."
Most seniors in California who receive checks through Supplemental Security Income -- a federal welfare program designed to meet the daily needs of poor, disabled and elderly people -- aren't eligible for food stamps. Those who would qualify wouldn't receive the same level of nutrition that they do from the food boxes, Ash said. In addition, he pointed out, studies show that for every $1 spent on nutrition programs for seniors, $3 are saved in Medicare, Medicaid and veterans' health care costs.
He contended President Bush has run up such a huge deficit by funding the war in Iraq, he is looking at comparatively tiny cuts around the edges to save money.
"Perhaps they think this is a population where people won't speak out against it, and they can pull off a little bit of savings," he said.
Ash and others with the Food Bank flew to Washington, D.C. last week to meet with representatives for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and lobby for saving the program. Ash said the message he got was that there is support for saving the program, but that there also are many competing priorities in the coming budget battle.
"What we really need now is a champion to go to Congress and say, 'We need this program,' " said Marguerite Nowak, a food bank manager who was helping with the distribution of food boxes on March 2.
That's certainly the hope of Terrie Frye, who enrolled in the program a few months ago -- just after her 60th birthday. Standing in line in the Tenderloin, Frye said she stretches the components of her box as much as possible and makes a favorite dish of the canned meat and vegetables she calls Government Beef Stew.
She said that without the boxes, she will have to dine more often at St. Anthony's.
"This helps so much," Frye said.