The fire-engine red van, with painted white angel wings on the back, pulled to the curb. Jim Dulski, the St. Vincent Meals on Wheels staff driver for route 21, and volunteer Chriselle Almeida, the “runner,” got out.

Reaching inside the van’s open side door, Almeida took a beige covered plastic tray and walked briskly in the gritty South L.A. neighborhood to a bungalow with a sign on the front door saying, “Please knock very hard.”

 “Good morning, sir.”

Ray Ragsby returned, “Good morning. How you doing today?” in a deep yet soft voice.

After leading Almeida and a ride-along visitor inside, the 78-year-old man sat down for a chat. “I’ve been getting Meals on Wheels a couple of years. Yeah, I love it. The food is great: nutritious, healthy. It ain’t exotic, but it’s better than most,” he said, chuckling.

“Ain’t no way in the world I’d be eating as healthy. I’m blessed. When I was in the hospital, the lady, she told me that St. Vincent’s was the best one. And then I’d seen the others. There’s no comparison. I like the chicken. And they’ve got chopped beef and enchiladas and turkey. I eat all of it. I’m gonna eat it right now.”

Ragsby says he has a morning ritual. First he does an “inventory” of how well he did yesterday: Was he selfish, self-centered, dishonest? Next he prays and meditates. “And then I wait on this,” he said with an open smile.

 “I don’t eat that much, so this is ample for my food,” he reported. “Oh, man, I don’t know what I’d do without this. See, I’m not a cook and never was. And if I had a good income, I’d do better. But my income is low, you know. Only thing I’m getting is social security.

“So this is great.”  

49 million ‘food insecure’ Americans

In one of the most comprehensive national research studies to focus on senior hunger in the United States, more than 5 million men and women 65 and over — 11.4 percent of all seniors — were found to experience “food insecurity.” Included in that startling number, 2.5 million were at risk of hunger, while about 750,000 were actually experiencing it, according to the 2008 investigation.

“The Causes, Consequences and Future of Senior Hunger in America” found, not surprisingly, that low-income seniors were the most at risk, but half of at-risk seniors lived above the federal poverty line. African American seniors were 75 percent more likely of being hungry than whites and Hispanics 20 percent more likely.

Other problematic factors in the study sponsored by the Meals on Wheels Association of America included being between 60 and 64, living with a grandchild, being a high school dropout, being separated, divorced or never married and renting an apartment or house.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The continuum ranges from having low to high food insecurity. Hunger, on the other hand, is the physiological feeling that results from the human body not having enough to eat.

 Last September, the USDA reported that 49 million Americans were living in food insecure households, including almost 16 million children. The nonprofit organization Feeding America points out, “Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important for establishing a good foundation that has implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that critical foundation.”

Disproportionally, African Americans and Hispanics experience poverty, unemployment — and food insecurity. Almost one in three African American (31.5 percent) and one in four (23.3 percent) Hispanic households face food insecurity compared to one in six (16.9 percent) Caucasian homes.

In 2012, California ranked 10th among states having the highest household food insecurity rates — behind Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada and Ohio. Some 16 percent of California households struggled to feed themselves, compared to 13 percent in New York and Illinois, and 14 percent in neighboring Oregon, reports the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. Nearly one in three children in the Golden State are “food insecure.”

And a new California Healthy Interview Survey (CHIS) by UCLA showed that at least 4 million low-income Californians didn’t get enough to eat during 2011-2012.

“While more than four million food-insecure Californians may seem like an overwhelming number, strong public policies once built a safety net in this country that virtually eliminated hunger,” declared George Manalo-LeClair, executive director of California Food Policy Advocates which released the study’s data. “Our local, state and federal leaders have the power to ensure that all Californians are well nourished each and every day of the year.”

Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap 2013” found that an estimated 1,749,600 people in the County of Los Angeles were food insecure, with one quarter being above the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)’s poverty threshold. As a result, the latter don’t quality for Food Stamps. And what the Los Angeles Times called a “whopping” 643,640 children in the county — nearly double the number of the second-most food-insecure county in California — go hungry.

Within downtown Los Angeles, bordered by the 110, 101 and 10 freeways, at least 35 nonprofits regularly feed the hungry living on the street or in shelters and single-room apartments. The largest of these soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters feeds up to 1,000 people a day.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 7 President Obama signed the long-stalled farm bill. Anti-hunger advocates pointed out the new law will cut Food Stamps by $8.6 billion over the next decade. That means 850,000 American households, some 1.7 million people in 15 states, will lose about $90 a month in benefits.    

‘It’s good food’

“The food is the best. Yes it is. Always hot. And they seem to know exactly what you want,” pointed out Georgia McSwain, about the St. Vincent Meals on Wheels food she’s been getting for three years on route 21. “I love all the meals, and I eat it all, too. See, the only thing I had this morning early was some cereal. Maybe I’ll have a salad or piece of cake, or grab a cup of coffee later this evening. So this is my main meal.

“It’s good food, and they serve nutritious stuff,” she added. “You get your juice, your milk, your fruit and a dessert of some kind — the whole thing.”

The 82-year-old woman said she also likes the visits, brief as they might be, with driver Jim Dulski and runner Chriselle Almeida who bring her the hot meals. And she really appreciates the birthday cards she receives from Sister Alice Marie Quinn, founder and executive director of St. Vincent Meals on Wheel, with little notes attached.

Her eyes went to Almeida before resting on the still-covered plastic tray. “What I’m gonna do is, after you leave, I’ll get at that table there, and I’ll start eating,” McSwain confided, breaking into a half-grin. “I’m gonna chill out.”