Webcast: Older adults and food insecurity during COVID-19

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

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Photo: Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Long before the novel coronavirus ever surfaced, millions of older adults struggled with food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded their ability to obtain healthy food or eat balanced, nutritious meals. One reason: older adults who rely on senior centers for a daily hot meal and important socialization find themselves shut in, unable to access important federal or state nutrition programs, fearful of trips to the supermarket, or without adequate financial and other means to do so.

While food banks and home meal delivery volunteers are trying to pick up some of the slack, some vulnerable older adults find themselves standing in long lines to pick up groceries or a sandwich. In some locations, food banks are running low on supplies. In others, seniors find themselves in literal food deserts. Programs like SNAP, the supplemental nutritional assistance program could help, but many older people are unaware they even qualify.

For many older adults, it’s impossible to separate food insecurity and the coronavirus pandemic, as Annelies Goger, Rubenstein Fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, wrote. “Anything that deters people from accessing group meals at senior centers or food banks puts low-income seniors in danger of malnutrition and hunger. Millions of them also typically cannot afford to stock up on food or supplies, and if they can, many need transportation assistance to and from grocery stores.”

Goger will discuss the challenges of food insecurity amid the pandemic in an AHCJ webinar on Wednesday, June 3, at 1 p.m. ET

One in seven older adults reported experiencing food insecurity in the past year, according to a University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. (The poll was conducted in December 2019, prior to the onset of the “shelter in place” orders). Researchers surveyed a national sample of U.S. adults 50–80 about household food insecurity and participation in food assistance programs. Common indicators of household food insecurity include inability to afford balanced meals, eating less, skipping meals, or feeling hungry but not eating due lack of money to pay for food.

Among older adults who experienced household food insecurity in the past year, 42% reported severe food insecurity, meaning individuals in their household reduced the quality or quantity of foods they consumed due to limited resources.  Naturally, it hits low-income seniors hardest.  “The scale of economic insecurity among older adults in the U.S. often goes unnoticed. Millions have trouble affording food and spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

As of 2015, there were more food-insecure older adults in the U.S. than there were during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, according to Goger. It’s an issue affecting older people regardless of where they live and is higher among Black, Latino or Hispanic populations, particularly women.  Lack of adequate nutrition impacts chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

That’s why programs like the senior congregate nutrition meal program — funded through the Older Americans Act (OAA) and supported by state matching funds and charitable contributions are so vital, especially in times of extreme need. These programs provided over 71.5 million healthy meals to more than 1.5 million people (about 2%) over age 60 in 2018, according to the Milbank Memorial Fund. The majority of recipients are over 75 and live alone.

How can communities address these real and urgent challenges? While rural, suburban and urban locales may require different approaches, Goger says all stakeholders must step up to help our most vulnerable population, especially during a time when both resources and options are scarce.

This webcast will offer journalists plenty of story ideas to explore — such as efforts to curtail  SNAP and other government-funded programs; or how communities and volunteers go above and beyond to ensure no older person in their neighborhood goes hungry.

Submit your questions in advance and join us on June 3 at 1 p.m. ET.

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