Food insecurity: Especially for older adults, it’s about more than hunger

Food insecurity — lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life — is a serious and growing problem among the older adult population. About eight to 10 million people over age 65 struggle to find, pay for, prepare, or consume a nutritious, varied, balanced diet.

It’s a challenge that is expected to worsen as our population ages and socioeconomic disparities increase.

Food insecurity is a strong predictor of chronic disease, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and lung disease, according to Meals on Wheels America. It can also contribute to or worsen mental health issues like depression and anxiety. As this new tip sheet details, government programs and services are available, but limited funding means not everyone who needs it qualifies for help.

While the Meals on Wheels network serves to 2.4 million homebound seniors and disabled adults daily, that only addresses a fraction of the real need, according to the organization’s president, Ellie Hollander. Hollander was a keynote speaker at Health Journalism 2017. Waiting lists are long, and will likely get worse, as the number of food-insecure seniors is projected to increase by 50 percent when the youngest of the baby boomer generation reaches age 60 in 2025.

Social determinants of health, like poverty, neighborhood characteristics, transportation and social isolation also contribute to food insecurity. Quality, affordable food may not be available locally, lack of public or private transit options makes it difficult for seniors to shop outside of their neighborhoods, homebound older adults may lack a support network of family or friends who can assist; waiting lists are long and application processes can be arduous for federal, state or local programs.

In addition to its effect on chronic disease, older adults who are chronically food insecure suffer other health problems such as low muscle mass, increased fatigue, impaired cognition and increased hypertension. In turn, this can lead to increased risk for falls, limit mobility, reduce ability for self-care, and ultimately force a move into institutional care. Many seniors must make trade offs between buying nutritious food and paying for medical care or other necessities like rent or utilities. Those over age 75 or members of minority groups are most likely to make these tradeoffs, according to Defeat Malnutrition, a coalition of advocacy groups.

Neither Medicare or Medicaid covers meals or nutritional supplements for those in need. However, some Medicaid waiver programs do provide food as part of their more comprehensive home and community based services. The Older Americans Act Nutrition Program (OAA NP), is one such program but generally serves those who are older, poorer, and more functionally impaired. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the largest social safety net program for those with low income, including older adults. Many poor seniors who struggle to get by on fixed incomes have critical unmet dietary needs, yet they don’t participate in SNAP, according a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report. “Only 42 percent of eligible individuals over age 60 participated in 2015 nationwide, though participation rates have risen modestly in recent years.” Monthly benefits for older adults average just $124 according to CBPP’s analysis.

Food insecurity among older adults isn’t a problem that’s going away any time soon. Shedding additional light on the problem can help those who need services and educate policy makers that more must be done to address this issue.

As the new tip sheet details, journalists can pursue a wide range of story ideas when it comes to food insecurity and older adults.

  • Importantly, what does the federal budget mean for funding of state and local food programs for seniors?
  • What options are available in local communities and how do lack of programs or healthy food options affect older adults’ overall health?
  • Which local organizations are stepping up to address this gap, and how?

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