Many older Americans are food insecure but less likely to seek help

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BY: Mark Ray

Who do you picture when you think about food insecurity? A child relying on the free breakfast and lunch her school provides? A family using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (aka, food stamps) at the grocery store? A homeless man in line at a soup kitchen?

Those people are undoubtedly food insecure, which means they lack consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life — not necessarily that they’re going hungry. But food insecurity also affects many people we don’t normally think about, especially older adults.

In the United States, 4.9 million people age 60 and older are food insecure, which equates to 1 in every 12 older adults (that’s a 45-percent increase over 2001), according to a 2016 report by Feeding America, a nonprofit with a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks.

And while poverty is an obvious contributing factor (more than 30 percent of older adults below the poverty line are food insecure), a surprising 20 percent of those above the poverty line face food insecurity as well.

“If the poverty line were the only issue to address, that would be simple,” says Keri Ann Lipperini, who directs the Office of Nutrition and Health Promotion Programs within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Even seniors living above the poverty line can experience food insecurity as they face life challenges such as increased health care as they age.”

Other Factors Contributing to Food Insecurity

But health care costs aren’t the only issue.

“Research is telling us that divorced seniors are two times more food insecure than married seniors,” Lipperini says. “Seniors with a grandchild present in the home are more food insecure when compared than those without grandchildren in the home.”

That latter factor perhaps relates to some people deciding to take care of others before they take care of themselves, something that’s not limited to family members.

“We hear all the time about older people deciding they’re going to feed their animals versus themselves,” says Diane Slezak, executive director of AgeOptions, the area agency on aging for suburban Cook County, Ill. (Across the country, more than 600 such agencies offer information and programs to older adults and younger people with disabilities.)

Food Assistance Programs That Can Help

Fortunately, help is available. In addition to SNAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers an alphabet soup of assistance programs specifically for older adults. These include: the Commodity Supplement Food Program; Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program; the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which also serves children in child care centers and emergency shelters.

Unfortunately, many eligible older adults forgo assistance; for example, the USDA reports that only 45 percent are receiving SNAP benefits.

Slezak thinks she knows why. As AgeOptions staff members talk with clients about applying, they’ll often hear explanations like: “I don’t deserve this; my next-door neighbor, she might deserve this. I wouldn’t want to spend this money on me; I can figure out a way to make it.”

How Food Insecurity Impacts Health

Not surprisingly, being food insecure impacts overall health. According to Feeding America’s report “The Health Consequences of Senior Hunger in the United States,” food-insecure older adults are significantly more likely to report they have chronic health issues, including diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and asthma, than others.

Improving access to nutritious food should naturally improve the health status of food-insecure older adults, but Lipperini’s office is going a step further.

“The last two years we’ve been calling for innovation projects that seek to increase the evidence-based knowledge of the (Older Americans Act) nutrition programs,” she says. “We’re diving into improved health outcomes for participants by promoting higher service quality, and we’re looking at increasing program efficiency through innovative service-delivery models. To date, we’ve given approximately $2.4 million to 10 different organizations.”

Physicians and Social Workers Partnering to Help

AgeOptions is one of five organizations to receive approximately $1.2 million in grants from the U.S. Administration for Community Living. Over the next two years, AgeOptions will work with Rush University Medical Center and Oak Street Health (a network of primary care practices for Medicare recipients) to improve links between health care providers and food-assistance services.

Specifically, physicians and social workers will begin referring patients to AgeOptions, which will triage them and address their needs. That could mean helping people apply for SNAP benefits, enrolling them in a home-delivered meals program or even connecting them with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program so they can afford food and heat over the winter.
“This grant provides us with an amazing opportunity to demonstrate the transformational value of home-delivered meals and related aging network services as we work with topnotch health care providers to meet the needs of at-risk older adults,” Slezak says.

To learn more about food insecurity for older adults, visit Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. If you suspect a friend, neighbor or loved one is facing food insecurity and you would like to learn about local services that can help, contact the Eldercare Locator, a service of the U.S. Administration on Aging. You can also call Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.

This story is part of our partnership with Next Avenue. Next Avenue is public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population. Their daily content delivers vital ideas, context and perspectives on issues that matter most as we age.