Senior hunger is a hidden danger that stretches across the entire country. Millions of seniors lack access to affordable, nutritious food — a situation that leads to a variety of mental, emotional, and physical problems.

Unfortunately, senior hunger is on the rise and requires complex solutions involving community outreach, financial assistance, and more. However, everyone has an opportunity to help, and the first step in combating senior hunger is education. The following guide provides a detailed look at the problem of senior food insecurity as well as several potential remedies.

Senior Hunger Explained

What is senior hunger?

First, the traditional definition of hunger refers to a lack of food. It creates physical sensations such as stomach pains, weight loss, irritability, insomnia, and other obvious symptoms. A person can die without food in just a few weeks, making this type of hunger an immediate concern.

However, many seniors contend with a different type of hunger called “food insecurity.” It occurs when someone is unable to access safe, nutritionally adequate food. Essentially, the individual does eat on a regular (or at least semi-regular) basis, but the only food available to them fails to meet proper dietary standards.   

The USDA divides the concept of food availability into four categories:

  • High Food Security – Nutritious food is easily accessible for the individual.
  • Marginal Food Security – Although nutritious food is generally accessible, the individual faces persistent anxiety about how to afford or otherwise obtain more.
  • Low Food Security – The individual only has access to food with little-to-no nutritional value.
  • Very Low Food Security – The individual has no consistent access to food at all and must frequently skip meals.

When discussing senior hunger, it’s important to focus beyond the physical discomfort caused by a lack of food. Instead, food insecurity is largely a financial and cultural issue. The individual might suffer greatly from the effects of a prolonged lack of nutrition but will rarely, if ever, feel physically hungry.

Senior Hunger Statistics

Senior hunger is a major issue in modern society, but also one that remains relatively invisible to those unaffected.

Determining an accurate tally of seniors affected by food insecurity is difficult. All statistics are almost certainly underreported, at least to some degree. Two factors interfere with the ability to accurately assess hunger and food insecurity among seniors:

Ultimately, while the statistics surrounding senior hunger are alarming, the extent of the actual problem is likely greater.

The State of Senior Hunger in America

While a wealth of academic statistics is available, one of the most comprehensive sources of information is from Feeding America, a non-profit dedicated to understanding and reducing hunger in the US.

Their most recent report, The State of Senior Hunger in America, released in 2020 using data obtained in 2018. Highlights of the report include:

  • 5.3 million seniors (60 or older) experienced food insecurity in 2018. That number is equal to 7.3% of the total senior population.
  • The rate of food insecurity decreased slightly in recent years but still remains higher than pre-recession levels from 2007. (As discussed later on, the 2007/2008 recession led to a significant increase in food insecurity among certain populations.)
  • Rates of food insecurity at the state level range from 2.8% (Minnesota) to 14.3% (Washington, DC).
  • Rates of food insecurity at the city level range from 2.5% (Minneapolis/St. Paul) to 15.6% (Memphis).

Additionally, the organization released a related report titled Hunger Among Adults Age 50-59 in 2018. Although the people in this age range aren’t necessarily considered seniors, they do provide insight for the future. After all, if someone suffers from food insecurity while in their 50s, it’s unlikely their economic situation will improve by the time they reach their 60s. Key takeaways from the survey include:

  • 10.6% of adults between 50 and 59 face food insecurity
  • State rates range from 2.6% (Colorado) to 17.3% (Kentucky)
  • City levels range from 4.6% (Denver) to 17.4% (Hartford, Connecticut and Memphis, Tennessee)

As you can see, the numbers related to the 50 to 59-year-old demographic are similar or even higher than the senior demographic, indicating rates of senior hunger might see an increase soon. If current trends continue, an estimated eight million seniors will struggle with food insecurity by the year 2050.   

What Types of Seniors Face Food Security Issues?

Food insecurity doesn’t impact all seniors equally. Instead, the problem is strongly influenced by a variety of socioeconomic factors.

Income

A large body of academic research suggests low income is the most significant predictor of both low and very low food security. Roughly one-quarter of households with a combined income below the official poverty level report food insecurity.

Over 15 million seniors live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. However, it’s important to note that the study defines seniors as anyone 65 years of age or older. Unfortunately, senior hunger continues to grow among so-called “younger seniors,” who are between 60 and 65 years old.

People between the ages of 60 and 65 face an increased risk of food insecurity. They’re often too old to work a full-time job but too young for Medicare. They fall into a gap of sorts where their income is severely limited, resulting in an inability to afford nutritious meals.

Additionally, following the 2007/2008 recession, many people nearing retirement age lost a significant amount of savings, and were unable to recover before entering retirement. Every year, they’re forced to survive on less.

Race

Ethnic minorities face an increased risk of food insecurity. Research from Baylor University broke down senior food insecurity in 2017 by race:

  • Black – Almost 20% of the population had food insecurity, and 6% had very low food security.
  • Hispanic – About 17% had food insecurity, and 5% had very low food security
  • White – About 7% had food insecurity, and 3% had very low food security

Why do Black seniors have higher rates of food insecurity than any other group? Unfortunately, they experience higher rates of many risk factors associated with food insecurity.

Most significantly, Black people are paid less than whites at every level of education. As shown above, income levels play a huge role in whether or not someone can obtain healthy food. The less money any demographic earns, the more likely they’ll face food insecurity.

Additionally, Black people have proportionally higher rates of health problems compared to all other races. Medical care costs can erode an individual’s finances quickly and significantly. If someone already lives on a fixed income, spending money on health care can mean not enough is left over for food.

Food Deserts

Geography also plays an important role in whether or not a person has access to healthy, nutritious food. Areas without access to fresh food are known as food deserts. They’re found across the entire US, with an especially high concentration in the South.

About 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts. An area doesn’t need to be particularly large to qualify. For example, over 2.3 million people live more than one mile away from a grocery store and don’t have a car. For seniors with limited mobility, walking even a mile to a store, and then walking back with groceries, isn’t physically possible.

A food desert isn’t devoid of food entirely. Instead, the area lacks access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy options. Food is primarily only available from fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and sit-down restaurants. (While some sit-down restaurants serve fresh, nutritious dishes, eating out is often prohibitively expensive for seniors on a fixed income.)

A person’s proximity to a grocery store has a direct impact on their health and weight. A study of Los Angeles residents found that living more than 1.75 miles from a grocery store led to an increase in body mass index when compared to people who lived closer.

Living Situation

Seniors who live alone are twice as likely to develop food insecurity as those who live with family or friends. When someone lives alone, their situation is harder for others to notice. If the individual feels ashamed to seek help, they might simply hide the problem and start skipping meals.

Also, a senior with reduced mobility faces more challenges if they live alone than with others. Once a senior is no longer able to drive or walk to the grocery store, they have limited options for obtaining food.

Finally, living alone can increase a senior’s risk of developing depression or dementia. Small early warning signs aren’t always easy for someone to recognize in themselves. Unless someone checks in on the senior regularly, small problems can quickly turn into major issues.

Education Level

Even well after graduation, a person’s education level impacts their chances of experiencing food scarcity later in life. People with a high school education, or who didn’t graduate high school, have a greater risk than those with a college degree.

The reasons for this aren’t exactly clear, but many experts believe it relates to overall economic security. Someone with a college education is more likely to have earned higher wages during their working days, which can help them afford better quality food during retirement.

Additionally, it’s possible college-educated seniors have an easier time understanding nutrition information, allowing them to make better choices when shopping for food. They might also have an easier time preparing a budget.

The Effects of Hunger and Malnutrition

A chronic lack of nutritious food leads to a huge variety of health problems.

Starvation

Starvation is the most obvious potential problem associated with a lack of food. It’s also one of the most mysterious, as studying starvation is widely considered unethical.

No single metric exists for how long a person can survive without food. Although the starvation process can begin after only a day without food, a person can live for weeks or even months without eating. Participants in hunger strikes typically go without food for about 21 to 40 days, after which they collapse due to life-threatening symptoms.   

An individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI) likely plays an important role in how long they can survive without food. Life-threatening problems typically develop in men with a BMI under 13 and in women with a BMI under 11.

As explained above, a complete lack of food is relatively rare. Instead, most health problems related to senior hunger are due to food insecurity.

Heart Disease

Food insecurity impacts heart health in two ways:

  • Impaired function
  • Increased stress

The Feeding America study referenced above found that seniors living with food insecurity had a 40% increased risk of congestive heart failure (CHF). It’s a condition where the heart can’t pump blood fast enough to keep up with the demands of the body. Symptoms include reduced mobility, shortness of breath, kidney failure, and even death.    

A lack of nutrition can directly cause congestive heart failure. Eating a diet high in sodium, such as what’s found in a typical food desert, is especially damaging to the heart. Even worse, a major treatment for heart problems involves switching to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but that’s not possible for many seniors with food insecurity.

Prolonged stress also negatively impacts the heart. According to the American Heart Association, chronic stress acts as a catalyst for a wide range of risky behaviors. In an attempt to manage their stress, people are more likely to:

  • Use tobacco
  • Drink alcohol
  • Overeat
  • Reduce their physical activity

Additionally, the human body releases adrenaline during any stressful situation. While a short burst of adrenaline isn’t particularly harmful, if a person is consistently stressed, their body operates at too high of a level for too long of a period.

Diabetes

Food insecurity and diabetes have a close relationship. Studies show that not only does food insecurity increase the risk of developing diabetes, but diabetes also leads to increased food insecurity. Type Two diabetes can occur when someone eats a diet high in sodium, sugar, and fat.

Additionally, food insecurity can result in uneven eating patterns. Someone might binge when food is available but then go long periods of eating very little. Eating in this way can disrupt blood sugar levels and increase the risk of becoming diabetic.

Diabetes is also expensive to manage. Seniors on a limited income might have to choose between insulin and other necessary treatments or food. If they skip insulin doses, their diabetes will worsen. Likewise, if they eat a lot of cheap fast food to save money, their diabetes can also worsen. It’s a no-win situation for many diabetics with food scarcity.

Finally, seniors have an increased risk of diabetes in general. Seniors, especially minorities, with limited income and non-existent access to grocery stores face multiple diabetic risk factors. Even worse, when someone can’t afford regular medical care, diabetes is often only detected after it creates significant health problems.

Daily Living

A lack of consistent access to healthy food also affects seniors in smaller ways. A senior’s ability to support themselves sufficiently is determined by a concept called Activities for Daily Living. Originally created by physician Sidney Katz, ADL focuses on six activities:

  • Bathing
  • Maintaining personal hygiene
  • Using the bathroom
  • Sleeping
  • Mobility
  • Obtaining food

Ideally, a senior should perform all of the above actions unassisted by others. The fewer activities they can accomplish, the less likely they’re able to live on their own.

Unfortunately, the inability to complete just one activity typically leads to the inability to complete others. For example, if a senior can’t walk or drive to a grocery store, they’ll become hungry. If they’re chronically hungry, they’ll likely have difficulty sleeping. A lack of sleep can result in a lack of energy for personal hygiene, and so on.

Food insecurity can act as an early warning sign that a senior is unable to care for themselves, especially if they’re financially secure. Mobility issues, in particular, are often a significant reason for senior hunger among affluent seniors.

Medication Underuse

Many seniors must choose between food and medication. Food insecurity directly correlates to medication underuse, which is defined as any of the following:

  • Skipping doses of medication
  • Taking smaller doses of medication
  • Delaying prescription refills
  • Avoiding medications entirely

Seniors who experience very low food security (the most severe category) are 56% more likely to underuse medication. For those with low food security, medication underuse drops to 40%, which is still high. By comparison, seniors without food access concerns only have a 25% likelihood of underusing medications (many of these cases involve issues unrelated to money, such as dementia).

Along these same lines, certain medications can increase a senior’s risk of malnutrition. The medication might impair the person’s appetite, increase nausea, or otherwise affect their ability to eat a balanced diet. In these cases, the person should work with their doctor to find a reduced dosage or alternate medication.

Depression

Seniors with food insecurity are 60% more likely to suffer from depression. The chronic worry associated with meal uncertainty can wear someone down both physically and mentally. It might even affect the person’s ability to enjoy the food they have. After all, if they’re not sure where the next meal is coming from, finishing up the food currently on their plate can create anxiety.

Additionally, depression can reduce a person’s appetite. They might eat less, which creates additional health problems that worsen the depression. It’s an unfortunate circle of events that can spiral out of control unless the depression is treated.

As discussed below, many community-based food programs focus on providing companionship as well as food. For example, a volunteer who delivers a meal to a senior’s home might sit with them for a while and talk. Also, seniors might find friends at a local community center. Connecting with others is often an effective way to reduce the symptoms of depression.

How to Help Seniors Affected by Food Insecurity

While hunger poses serious risks for seniors, there are reasons to be hopeful. Many programs exist to provide support to help seniors overcome food insecurity.

SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps provide people across the US with access to healthy food. Operated by the USDA, SNAP is considered the nation’s first line of defense against hunger.

The program is fairly simple. Benefits are delivered to an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. It’s similar to a debit card but can only be used to purchase food. They’re accepted at a huge array of grocery and convenience stores. By using SNAP benefits for food, more money is then freed up for the recipient to use for bills, medications, and other expenses.

Unfortunately, seniors have historically low participation rates in the program. While 84% of all eligible individuals in the country participate in SNAP, that number drops significantly for seniors. Only 48% of eligible adults ages 60 and older seek out SNAP benefits.

Why is SNAP participation so low for seniors? Experts cite several reasons:

  • Mobility – Unfortunately, to use SNAP benefits, the senior must visit a grocery store. Impaired mobility might pose a problem.
  • Technology – Applying for benefits is done over the phone or online. Seniors can feel intimidated and confused by the process.
  • Social Stigma – Many seniors feel embarrassed to apply for benefits.
  • Confusion – Many seniors don’t realize that they’re eligible for the SNAP program.

The USDA is aware of the low participation rate among eligible seniors, and they’ve implemented several programs to help increase awareness.

Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels is another national program designed to provide seniors with nutritious food on a regular basis. Originally founded in Philadelphia in 1954, today Meals on Wheels is available in practically every community in America. They provide 221 million meals to over 2.4 million seniors each year.

The Meals on Wheels program has two facets:

  • Home delivery
  • Congregate nutrition sites

The home delivery program is the traditional model. Volunteers deliver a hot, nutritious meal directly to the senior’s home. All meals meet dietary guidelines established by the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program.

Fifty-eight percent of meal recipients live alone. The delivery person is often the only person the senior sees all day. When delivering the meal, the volunteer doesn’t just drop it off and leave. Instead, they chat or eat with the senior, providing conversation and companionship.

Aside from home delivery, seniors can also eat their meals at Meals on Wheels nutrition sites. They’re typically found at senior centers and other community-focused locations. The sites provide an opportunity for groups of seniors to eat together.

Meals on Wheels programs focus on more than providing nutritious meals. They also provide companionship. Nine out of 10 seniors in the program say it helps them live independently.     

National Foundation to End Senior Hunger

This nationwide non-profit creates innovative solutions to combat senior hunger. They help smaller community organizations maximize their efficiency and effectiveness. After developing a plan for an organization, they then attempt to replicate their solution for similar groups.

One of NFESH’s signature programs is called What a Waste. It’s computer software that helps charitable organizations track and reduce food waste. Additionally, it helps the organization develop food plans based on senior-specific nutritional guidelines.

They also maintain the Jack and Eleanor Border Kosher Meal Fund. It funds a variety of smaller senior nutrition programs dedicated to providing kosher meals.

At NFESH, they believe everybody deserves the dignity of a warm, healthy meal. By combining technology with compassion, they continue to develop nationwide programs designed to reduce food waste and increase charitable efficiency.

USDA Services

Aside from home delivery services, the USDA also runs several other food service programs.

The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides seniors with locally-grown fruits, vegetables, herbs, and honey. It provides grants to help states connect farmers’ markets and other sources of local foods with senior centers and senior assistance programs.

The program benefits all parties. Low-income seniors gain access to fruits and vegetables, two items often in short supply within food deserts. Additionally, local farmers have new opportunities to sell their produce, which is purchased by the federal government.

Another popular USDA program is the Community Supplemental Food Program. Available to low-income seniors in all 50 states, the program provides recipients with free food packages. While the packages don’t contain full meals, they do provide a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Aside from seniors, the program is also available for families with kids.      

How to Talk to Seniors About Food Insecurity

Senior hunger is a difficult issue to treat because it exists in the shadows. Many hungry seniors attempt to hide their situation from friends and loved ones.

First, caregivers will need to identify the problem, which isn’t always easy. Watch for both weight loss or weight gain. Sometimes, a senior will put on weight when they switch their diet to cheaper food, such as fast food. Other times, they’ll lose weight because they’re eating less overall.

If you suspect a senior is having difficulty obtaining nutritious food, approach the subject gently. Follow these communication guidelines from the Gerontological Society of America:

  • Avoid overly simplified communication, which can sound condescending. Instead, use appropriate medical terms followed by a straightforward explanation.
  • Avoid informal nicknames such as “dear,” “sweetie,” or “darling.” Instead, address the senior as mister or missus. (If the senior is your parent, you can refer to them as “mom,” “dad,” or whatever term you commonly use.)
  • Use some simple statistics. Seniors typically aren’t aware of how common food security issues are among their age group. Showing examples of how they’re not alone can help reduce the stigma associated with seeking help.

Finally, understand that the issue is often beyond the capabilities of one person. If your parent or another older relative struggles with finding food, encourage them to visit a local senior center. Not only do many senior centers provide nutritious meals, but the staff often understands how to use local resources to help with food scarcity issues.

Tips for Healthy Eating

For seniors on a fixed income, every dollar counts when shopping for food. The following tips help seniors make the most of their food budget.

First, always make a list before shopping. Food in the grocery store is designed for maximum enticement. It’s easy to grab unhealthy snacks and other treats simply because they look tasty. By creating a list beforehand, the shopper is less likely to waste money on impulsive purchases.

Also, schedule shopping to avoid any food waste. Fruits and vegetables have a fairly short shelf life. Try not to buy more than you can eat in a reasonable time. Another strategy with vegetables is to cook them in food right away and then freeze your meals for a later date.

Along those same lines, meat can be stored in the freezer for months. If you find a good deal on meat at your grocery store, consider buying a large quantity and freezing it.

Finally, always read the labels of any food you purchase. Generally, low sodium and low sugar options are healthier and usually don’t cost any more than the standard version of the product.

Final Thoughts

Although senior hunger is a national tragedy, there is reason to be hopeful. Several national organizations work tirelessly to provide seniors with healthy, nutritious meals. Plus, understanding the causes of senior hunger, as well as its long-term effects on both individuals and society, provides an important framework towards providing a solution.

With knowledge and compassion, we can work together towards a future where every senior can enjoy delicious, nutritious meals and all the health benefits they provide.

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