Food Insecurity May Be Closer Than You Think
Even in apparently affluent areas, some older adults lack reliable access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food
My teenage son and I volunteered together for a local Meals on Wheels program in the summer of 2020, when COVID had caused an uptick in the need for home meal delivery services and a decrease in volunteers.
We were assigned a route of eight clients, all of whom lived within several miles of our house. My son was initially surprised by the number of older adults in our community who relied on this service.
Indeed, many middle-class and affluent people are surprised when they learn that some of their neighbors, including millions of older adults, grapple with food insecurity — defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
"There is a lack of understanding regarding the food insecurity, hunger and isolation many seniors experience," says Ellie Hollander, president and chief executive officer of Meals on Wheels America.
"The public may think the issues are only occurring in certain areas or that food insecurity is temporary, brought on by situations like the pandemic. But in fact, many seniors from all different places and backgrounds struggle with food insecurity for various reasons," she says.
Patricia Arthur, 71, is a Meals on Wheels client in Richmond, Virginia. "I am blind, so I can't cook for myself and it's hard for me to go out on my own to get food," she says. "It's something my daughter, who works a lot, really worried about. Thankfully, there is Meals on Wheels to deliver nutritious meals to me."
What Is Food Insecurity?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 nonprofit food banks, said in its most recent report on The State of Senior Hunger that 5.2 million older adults (1 in 15) were food insecure in 2020. They are more likely to face hunger if they identify as Black, Latino, or Native American, have lower incomes, or are disabled.
As the country's older population continues to grow, so will the future challenges.
"Older adults may choose to feed their families and go hungry themselves."
The causes of food insecurity vary, Hollander explains. "There are both economic and social issues at play. Older adults are usually retired and on a fixed income. After paying for rent, utilities and medications, they may not have enough money left for proper nutrition," she says. "Or they may have medical issues that make it impossible to shop for food or cook meals."
Adding to that, many children and grandchildren moved in with their parents during the pandemic. "Older adults may choose to feed their families and go hungry themselves," she says.
Empathy for Those Struggling
Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot says that while there is empathy for those facing food insecurity, more needs to be done. "There is a misguided view sometimes of 'earned hunger' and those older adults facing food insecurity did something wrong that caused the issue," she says. "It's not that they didn't work hard their whole life or plan well. Food insecurity can happen to anyone at any time."
People make assumptions about what it looks like to be food insecure. They may not realize that the person with the nice house may not be able to afford food or might have some sort of health crisis that causes financial issues. Babineaux-Fontenot described a common scenario:
"One spouse becomes ill and the other cares for them. They face mounting bills for medical care and prescription drugs. Then the spouse dies and the one who has been caretaking is left with huge debt and is unable to afford food. So they eat less or make poor nutritional choices and ultimately get sick themselves."
"Food insecurity can happen to anyone at any time."
Many people who qualify for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to by its acronym, SNAP) or other types of services may not realize that these programs are available to them or they may be too proud to ask for assistance. But a lack of nutrition can put older adults at risk for various chronic health conditions from depression to diabetes.
"Seniors may think 'I am not so bad off' or 'I don't want to take food from someone who really needs it when they are struggling'," Babineaux-Fontenot says. "I met a woman from Florida who had volunteered for several years at Meals on Wheels. Then one day, she found herself on the other side of the line in need of this service herself. She never thought that would happen to her, but it did."
Support for Those Affected
The pandemic shed a strong light on food insecurity in 2020, but the light has dimmed over time, Hollander says. "When the pandemic started, there was an outpouring of support," she says. "People donated generously; they volunteered and gave food donations and financial contributions."
"People returned to their lives when the world began to re-open, and support waned," she adds. "Other problems in the world became the focus of the news. Food insecurity got pushed out of the headlines even though it remains an issue, especially with rising inflation and supply chain issues."
Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, recently renewed the federal government's Public Health Emergency Declaration for COVID to mi-October. That 90-day renewal automatically extended temporary provisions Congress approved to increase access to federal nutrition programs and improve food benefits.
It's important to remember that local food banks, group meal programs and Meals on Wheels don't just provide nourishment to older adults. They also connect them to their community and provide emotional support. Arthur calls the volunteers that deliver her meals "angels on wheels."
"I don't have many people visiting me," she says. "The volunteers are so nice. They keep me company and help me put the food away. They not only feed me, they also check in on me to make sure I am OK."