Do We Have a Duty to Eat?

Do We Have a Duty to Eat?

Originally published in the February 1987 issue of Senior Edition newspaper

The Denver Post calls it “a trivial legal pursuit.” It concerns me even more that a number of my peers who have committed their working lives to improving the lot of older persons seem to agree. There is nothing objectionable, they argue, in forcing (they say “requiring”) senior residents of HUD-subsidized apartment units to purchase their meals at apartment building cafeterias installed to comply with Housing and Urban Development regulations.

At least 20 of the residents at Eaton Terrace are outraged by this unwanted governmental interference into their daily lives (not to mention daily diets) and have sued in federal court to remove the requirement that they purchase 24 meals per month from their facility’s meal service. I support them wholeheartedly. Far from pursuing “a trivial legal pursuit” as the Post suggests in its editorial of May 29, the petitioners from Eaton Terrace have raised a fundamental legal and moral issue of paramount concern to all of us who care about the rights of people, and particularly the rights of people whose basic survival depends upon economic assistance from the federal government.

The Post editorial is condescending, callous, and presumptuous, advancing the rather preposterous notion that the proper recipe for hale and hearty old folks is to force feed them at the public trough in a manner that causes no possible drain on the already overtaxed public treasury. To wit (according to the Post): “There should be room in our subsidized inns for partial payment by those who can pay, especially when the aim is to make older people’s lives more healthful and cheerful without tapping the public purse.” In short, the Post argues, we are requiring this of you because it’s good for you; it will make you happy.

Were he able, I should hope that Thomas Jefferson would leap from his grave and pen a vigorous dissent. “Pursuit of happiness” were the words Jefferson so carefully chose in the declaration of Independence lest men of more literal bent try forcefully to impose their own definition of that elusive state upon their fellows. By implication the Post suggests that the dissatisfied residents of Eaton Terrace should do their civic duty and cheerfully consume the pablum so generously offered by the government-regulated cafeteria, as though it were their civic duty.

Now the reason these manacled patrons of the public repast have a civic duty which exceeds the liability of ordinary citizens is, simply, that they are poor. And, as is the case for poor people everywhere, they are expected to cover up with unblemished gratitude their exchange of basic human rights in a bargain for survival.

Persons living in government-subsidized housing spend about one-third of their limited incomes for shelter. In the case of a person eligible for the state’s Old Age Pension, this leaves as little as a couple hundred dollars left over for everything else. How much “dignity” (a word used by all government officials concerned about the “plight” of the elderly) is left to a person when the government tells him how he must spend 50% of what is left over?

And what incentive is there for the operator of a HUD-regulated meal service to provide nutritious and tasteful meals to his captive resident diners? Should we trust quality assurance to those same government regulators who, in an effort “to make older people’s lives more cheerful and healthful” would deny their freedom of choice? Or, should we trust it to the HUD-subsidized apartment manager who with a captive dining market is in a position to increase profits from his meal service by diminishing the quality and the quantity of the food served?

In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” I applaud the residents of Eaton Terrace who have had the guts to stand up and tell the government, “This time you’ve gone too far.” Indeed, this time it has gone too far. Being poor in a society dedicated to affluence is difficult enough without having to swallow the kind of official bureaucratic pablum served up in the Post editorial as your daily fare.

The erosion of individual rights begins with the erosion of the rights of society’s most vulnerable individuals. With the expansion of an aging society and all the problems that foreshadows for the ensuing years, government will be sorely tempted to compromise fundamental rights of economically vulnerable older persons on the pretext of providing the same people with a presumed benefit at a drastically reduced cost. We sympathize with the woman resident of Eaton Terrace who fixes meals for her husband who has dietary exemption, and is required to purchase her own meals in the HUD-regulated cafeterias. It is the government version of Hobson’s choice which is, simply to say, no choice at all.

We can only be heartened by the fervor with which the dissident residents of Eaton Terrace have responded to what is an ill-considered and unjust denial of a basic human right – freedom of choice. The Post peremptorily proclaims that theirs is “a trivial legal pursuit.” I disagree. On the contrary, it is a confrontation of potential historic significance whose result may portend good or ill for coming generations of older Americans.