This is the first in a series of blogs shining a spotlight on the issue of food insecurity and how it affects different populations in the U.S.
Just as older Americans enter what some call “the golden years,” many actually face a critical problem that can seriously tarnish the time in life where they’re supposed to sit back, relax, and enjoy. That problem is food insecurity.
Let’s start with what food insecurity is – and isn’t. It’s not hunger which is related to physical discomfort due to lack of food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. 1
In America – the wealthiest of nations -- almost one in five households with adults age 40 or older is food insecure. 2 And the issue spans all demographics, races, and socioeconomic groups.
Food insecurity isn’t a recent problem related to the COVID-19 pandemic or the recession; it’s a long-standing issue that’s been worsening for years. According to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH), there was a 65% increase in hunger among senior citizens from 2007 to 2014. 3 Part of the increase was caused by the 2008 recession. The COVID-19 pandemic and current recession will likely increase food insecurity for all vulnerable populations.
With almost 8.6 million older Americans facing food insecurity as of 2016, it’s clearly a problem that needs to be addressed -- and solved. That starts with understanding what causes it. 4
Older individuals face food insecurity because of single issue or a combination of them.
Health – One of the biggest causes of food insecurity is declining health with age. In older adults, about 80% have one chronic disease and 77% have two or more chronic diseases. 5 Aging and poor health can cause physical limitations that make going to the grocery store and preparing healthy meals difficult. Without enough fresh food on hand, seniors tend to skip meals or resort to eating less nutritious, packaged foods and snacks rather than prepared meals.
Finances – Many senior citizens struggle with financial issues that limit their ability to access enough nutritious food. A study by the World Health Organization shows that 25 million Americans age 60 or over are economically insecure and live at or below 250% of the federal poverty level. 6 Limited budgets also force older Americans to make difficult choices about how they spend their money. When they’re balancing rent, health care expenses, and prescriptions, nutritious food is often last on the list.
Social isolation - Older Americans living alone due to the death of their spouse or because their families are dispersed across the country face social isolation. 7 The NFESH study shows that living alone is a factor in the development of dementia and depression, both of which can suppress the desire to eat. 8 When seniors don’t have help preparing meals or someone to share them with, they’re less likely to eat nutritious, full meals.
Other barriers – Other functional issues can exacerbate food insecurity. The stigma around using food assistance programs stops some older individuals from accessing care. Even not knowing how to use a computer or cell phone can hamper their ability to connect with support programs that can help.
Fortunately, there are many well-respected, established programs in place to help reduce food insecurity in older Americans.
SNAP – The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the government’s largest nutrition program for protecting low-income citizens – including older individuals – from food insecurity. Participants receive a monthly benefit to spend on food. Due to myths and misunderstandings about the program, only about half the eligible population has enrolled in the program. 9 Educating eligible older adults about the program and helping them apply for benefits could help millions of people get the nutrition they need.
Public-private partnerships – Large government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and health care plans around the nation recognize that providing good nutrition to their members is critical to their overall health and well-being. Many of these organizations now include home-delivered meals as part of their benefits packages helping millions of senior citizens at risk for food insecurity.
Mom’s Meals is another great example of an organization helping to tackle food insecurity for older Americans. We partner with health plans, government programs, and community agencies to deliver condition-appropriate meals that help meet the daily nutrition needs of seniors around the nation. Learn more