Tip Sheets

Covering food insecurity in older adults during COVID-19

By Liz Seegert

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on older adults, far beyond the tens of thousands of cases and deaths striking those 60 and older. It also is highlighting the fragility of safety net programs and services that help to feed the estimated 1.5 million seniors who rely on senior centers, home delivery and food banks for healthy, nutritious meals. According to the Milbank Memorial Fund, the majority of these recipients are 75 and older, and live alone.

“One in 11 seniors face hunger each day, yet too often they are forgotten. Many live alone and face mobility issues that prevent them from accessing the nutritious food they so desperately need. Others would rather stay silent than ask for help. They are all struggling to get by,” says the nonprofit Move for Hunger.

Congregate meal programs, which bring community-dwelling seniors together for a hot lunch, socialization and well-being have been particularly hard-hit during the pandemic. An analyses of the 2018 National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants (NSOAAP) by Milbank suggests that among those who received congregate meal services at least once per month, more than half (57%) of participants obtained a majority of their total daily food intake from the program. And while these programs certainly help reduce food insecurity among older adults and improve their diet quality, about 18% of those who receive them still have unmet food-related needs.

With COVID-19 shutting down places where older adults gather, many organizations are working to deliver meals to older adults who usually eat lunch at community dining sites.

A recent report from Feeding America found that in 2018, 5.3 million people 60 and older, or 7.3% of the senior population, were food insecure. State-level rates of food insecurity among seniors ranged from 2.8% in Minnesota to 14.3% in the District of Columbia. The study also included an analysis of metropolitan areas, with senior food insecurity rates ranging from 2.5% in the Minneapolis/St. Paul (Minn.) area to 15.6% in the Memphis (Tenn.) area. Those who experience food insecurity are more likely to have poorer health and to have diet-related conditions like diabetes.

What is food insecurity?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” An estimated 37 million Americans, about 1 in 9, were food insecure in 2018. Among those 55-64, more than one in six adults was food insecure in 2019, a University of Michigan poll found. Food insecurity goes beyond just lack of money, however. Research shows there are often many underlying psychosocial factors too. Food insecurity also has a significant impact on health and related health care costs, according to 2018 research published in the journal Preventing and Chronic Disease.

As Annelies Goger, Rubenstein fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan policy program, wrote, the pandemic has only made these challenges harder. “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 looks at the issue of food insecurity and older adults in a June 3 AHCJ webinar.

The National Council on Aging says older adults are more likely to be food insecure if they:

  • Live in a southern state: Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of senior food insecurity are in the south (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia).

  • Have a disability: Almost one-third of food insecure seniors are people with disabilities.

  • Are younger: Nearly 65% of food insecure seniors are younger than age 69.

  • Live with a grandchild: Nearly one in every five seniors living with grandchildren is food insecure.

  • Are African American or Hispanic: 17% of African American seniors and 18% of Hispanic seniors are food insecure, compared to 7% of Caucasian seniors.

Challenges obtaining additional assistance

Many older adults qualify for additional help through SNAP - the supplemental nutrition assistance program, but don’t know it, or have trouble applying. The Food Action and Research Center (FRAC) says just 42% of eligible adults 60 use SNAP on average each month, compared to 83 percent of all SNAP-eligible participants.

However, three out of five seniors who qualify for SNAP do not participate. This means that 5.2 million older adults miss out on benefits. Older Americans who qualify for SNAP are significantly less likely to participate in the program than other demographic groups, according to the NCOA.

Several factors contribute to the low participation rate, including mobility and technology barriers, stigma, and misconceptions about eligibility. On average, households with elderly individuals receive $125 per month to help put food on the table.

Depending on they live, older adults may qualify for meal delivery to their home through Meals on Wheels. While the program usually only serves older adults who are homebound and cannot cook or prepare meals, organizations are working to serve additional people, such as those who are quarantining during the pandemic. Who can get meals and how and when they are delivered varies by area.

Older adults may also qualify for:

  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program

    • Some food banks provide older adults with a box or bag of staple foods (canned fruits and vegetables, cheese, shelf-stable milk, cereals, potatoes, grains, peanut butter, and dried beans) each month through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (the program name may vary by state). Participants must be low-income and age 60 .

      Older adults should check with their local food bank to see if the program is offered in their area and whether it’s accepting new participants. Current participants should check with their food bank for any pandemic-related changes to food availability or distribution.

  • Emergency Food

    • Food providers, like food banks, food pantries, faith-based organizations, soup kitchens, and shelters, are distributing emergency food for all ages. There may be special programs for older adults depending on where you live.

Story ideas

  • How are local food banks in your area addressing the nutritional needs of older people, special diets (low salt, low sugar), lack of transportation among seniors to get to a food bank or ability to wait on line for long periods of time. Are they short of volunteers, many of whom are often older adults themselves?

  • Food insecurity is a huge challenge in rural areas, in underserved urban “food deserts” and among many Native American elder populations. What are counties, cities and tribes doing to address these specific challenges?

  • Some food banks say they are running out of money. What’s being done to bolster their ability to continue serving those in need?

  • Even after cities and counties loosen restrictions, many older adults may be fearful of venturing out to shop, or return to a senior center for meals. How are agencies, non-profits and community groups planning to address an ongoing need for food assistance?