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Feeding America: A Generation that Quietly Goes Hungry

Most of us look forward to the years following retirement. Some even consider it the best years of their lives.

But for millions of Americans, the golden years aren’t so golden.

There are 37 million people across the U.S. who struggle with hunger and barely get by because of life’s unexpected hurdles, and a large portion are at more risk than we realize – older Americans.

While the rate of food insecurity for senior citizens has decreased in recent years, it is still much higher than it was in 2007, before the recession. The current number of seniors who are food insecure is more than double what it was in 2001 – a number that is expected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages.

Feeding America is working hard to prevent this, but it’s important to understand the issue to inform policy and charitable efforts and eliminate hunger for older Americans.

The Facts

According to Feeding America’s The State of Senior Hunger in America report, 7.7 percent of seniors age 60 and older were food insecure in 2017. That means 5.5 million seniors didn’t have adequate access to affordable nutritious food, and at this rate that number may grow to more than 8 million by 2050.

To get a full picture of food insecurity rates within the aging baby boomer generation (55-75 years old), Feeding America expanded its research and investigated Hunger Among Adults Age 50-59. In 2017, an estimated 11.3 percent (or 4.8 million) of older adults age 50-59 were food insecure.

There are several socioeconomic factors influencing these rates – most notably income. Many seniors, for example, must rely on either low fixed incomes (the average Social Security benefit is $1,461 per month) or work a full-time or part-time job (1 in 5 seniors work at least part time).

Outside of income, other compounding factors impact food insecurity rates for seniors and older Americans, especially if individuals are:

  • Divorced, separated or never married and struggling to support themselves on a single income
  • Living in multi-generational households by shielding children or grandchildren from food insecurity at the expense of their own dietary needs
  • Unemployed/disabled, which is particularly problematic for adults in their 50s who are too young to be eligible for retirement and certain other benefits
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • Female

No matter the cause, the fact remains that thenext wave of adults joining the senior population may struggle to put food on the table – and face new challenges along the way.

Health Impact of Hunger 

Some of the biggest health threats older and senior Americans face include cognitive decline, chronic disease and sensory impairments. Unfortunately, these issues can worsen for people experiencing hunger.

Hunger and chronic disease form a cycle, one that begins when a person cannot afford enough healthy food and lack proper nutrition to properly manage existing diseases. According to Feeding America’s Hunger in America report, households served by the Feeding America network that include an adult age 50 or older are at an increased risk of having someone with a chronic health condition that can be mitigated by healthy food options, including diabetes (41 percent) and high blood pressure (70 percent).

Additionally, the State of Senior Hunger report found food-insecure seniors are:

  • 78 percent more likely to experience depression
  • 55 percent more likely to experience asthma
  • 40 percent more likely to experience chest pain
  • 10 percent more likely to experience high blood pressure

To make matters worse, seniors facing hunger usually focus their time and money on responding to their worsening health crises, which drains household budgets and leaves less money on the table for essential nutrition. Many seniors face tough choices about paying for medicine or food, and may make trade-offs by halving necessary medications, skipping meals, or purchasing unhealthy foods that are easier on the budget. Older Americans age 50-59 face similar health concerns but are too young to benefit from various government supports, including Medicare, to address these complications.

Yet, there are other government supports available to help mitigate challenges that stem from food insecurity – but not everyone who is eligible accesses it.

Government Assistance Programs

SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger for seniors. Nearly 5 million households with a senior receive, on average, $125 per month in SNAP benefits that they can use to purchase groceries at the store or farmer’s market. Without SNAP, millions of more seniors would be food insecure. However, due to lack of awareness, stigmas regarding government assistance, and perceived difficulty of applying, only 42 percent (or 2 in 5) SNAP-eligible seniors are enrolled in the program, roughly half the enrollment rate of non-seniors.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) – both USDA commodity food programs, with CSFP only being eligible to seniors – are also a crucial source of nutritious food for food-insecure older Americans. These programs are distributed primarily through the Feeding America network of food banks and provide vital proteins, vegetables, fruits and dairy to assist in the nourishment of older Americans.

Though important, these programs are frequently overlooked, are not as well known, or have significant barriers to entry such as income, availability, and other issues. Some programs, including CSFP and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutritional Program (SFMNP), have geographic distribution limits. Income limits may be too strict for seniors who have trouble making ends meet after paying for expenses like housing and healthcare. Many seniors are simply unaware of what federal assistance is available or how to apply.

The Feeding America nationwide network of 200 food banks is working hard to change that through senior-specific community outreach programs, but the lack of awareness of both eligibility for and existence of these federal nutrition programs remain significant barriers.

Thus, while SNAP, TEFAP, CSFP, and the other federal nutrition programs remain crucial to solving senior hunger, the charitable sector also plays an important role.

The Charitable Food System

Hunger exists in every community in the country and Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks, along with 60,000 partner agencies (e.g., food pantries and soup kitchens), strive to provide healthy and accessible food for people struggling to put food on the table.

Briefly, Feeding America food banks receive and store food donations from food manufacturers, retailers and farmers and then distribute that food through their network of meal programs and food pantries to help provide food assistance to people in need.

Many food banks also provide targeted programs to meet seniors’ unique needs. Examples include a mobile pantry to a senior living community, home-delivered meals to seniors who are homebound or unable to cook, special pantry hours just for seniors, or regular access to fresh produce and other diet-appropriate foods. Today’s innovative programs reach more seniors online, connect with caregivers, or tap into seniors’ strong desire to volunteer and give back.

Public and private partnerships are key to solving senior hunger. Individual, corporate, and foundation donors represent a critical source of funding and support for these senior-targeted programs, designed to increase access to healthy food to anyone in need. 

Fight for Their Right 

Like all people, older and senior Americans deserve access to adequate food and proper nutrition. Feeding America is committed to helping fight food insecurity within this population, and our network serves more than 13 million seniors and older adults combined.

But this important work cannot be done without help from policymakers and the public. Given the scope and scale of the issue, along with the expected growth of the senior population in years to come, it is important that policymakers protect and strengthen the existing safety net of public food programs and invest in public-private partnerships to reduce food insecurity and end hunger in America. The public can also get involved by spreading awareness of the issue, donating or volunteering at their local food bank.

After a lifetime of working and raising families, the last thing older and senior Americans should worry about is where their next meal is coming from. Feeding America is committed to helping our senior population, but we can’t do this important work without you.