November 12, 2015 | About aging and hunger from the Sept/Oct issue of Aging Today by the American Society on Aging
“Today, millions of older adults face food insecurity instead of sharing meals and stories with their grandchildren. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day, and with today’s growing rates of income inequality, by 2050, 18 million older Americans will face hunger and food insecurity.”
Growing up, my relationships with the most important older adults in my life revolved around food. My grandfather loved food. To make a living, he interwove this love with lifelong entrepreneurial endeavors—after graduating from high school, he immediately went to work as a milkman (back when milk was delivered to your home—and not by an Amazon drone), then he became a candy salesman, then the owner of a corner store and, ultimately, a restaurant supply distributor.
As kids, my siblings and cousins and I spent countless hours riding around in the back of his station wagon delivering food to restaurant kitchens throughout San Francisco. Before we would leave the house at four in the morning, we all fueled up on my grandmother’s waffles, and when we returned home in the evening, we refueled with lamb and tabbouleh. My grandfather would tell stories as we ate. He was always the last to finish because he told so many stories and because—as a child of the Depression—he made it a point to finish off every scrap of food the rest of us left on our plates. I can’t imagine growing up without those meals together.
But today, millions of older adults face food insecurity instead of sharing meals and stories with their grandchildren. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day, and with today’s growing rates of income inequality, by 2050, 18 million older Americans will face hunger and food insecurity. The rate of food insecurity among low-income older adults has been steadily increasing. Twenty-four percent of this population regularly skips meals, runs out of food before the end of the month, and has trouble eating balanced, healthy meals. This is up from 19 percent in 2008, all according to a Government Accountability Office report. For the one in six older adults facing food insecurity right now, sufficient groceries are often the line item in fixed budgets that gets slashed, making a mayo sandwich for lunch and bowl of cornflakes for dinner the reality for too many. We have to tackle the crisis of senior hunger in the immediate term, and at its deep, underlying root.
Getting Food on the Table
As today’s 9.5 million people older than age 60 struggle to afford food, programs like Meals on Wheels, the SNAP program, food banks, and free meals provided by churches and community centers are low-income older adults’ bread and butter.
Many of our partners have stepped up with tremendous efforts to improve older adults’ access to food. The National Coalition on Aging’s Senior SNAP Enrollment Initiative is helping to facilitate and streamline the application process to get more low-income older adults connected to existing resources (only a third of eligible elders are enrolled in SNAP). And our friends at AARP are doing effective work on hunger through research, education and on-the-ground partnerships and coalitions. But more needs to be done.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 82 percent of food insecure elders don’t receive any meal delivery services such as Meals on Wheels, either because there isn’t enough funding, or they are unaware of the services, or barriers—such as lack of transportation or physical disabilities—prevent them from accessing services.
Getting at the Root of the Problem
In our efforts to ameliorate senior hunger, we have to make sure we don’t treat it as a discrete issue. Hunger is the end result of growing levels of poverty and economic security, connected to many related problems such as poor health, obesity, depression, decreased immunity and lack of energy for the activities of daily life.
As we design strategies to address hunger, we must also work to combat income inequality and poverty. Enid Borden, of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, has said, “Pouring money into feeding folks today is certainly part of the equation, but determining solutions that will last means investing wisely and purposefully in preventing senior hungertomorrow.” Policy makers obsessed with rising healthcare costs and government spending have to understand that spending money to feed hungry older adults can help reduce healthcare costs, and ensuring the economic security of all older people can help address hunger.
We can improve millions of lives in one fell swoop and put more food on older adults’ tables by prioritizing their economic security. By doing this, we improve health and safety, decrease suffering and give them the opportunity to live with the dignity they deserve. We need to strengthen safety net programs and update them to match financial realities. We must urge Congress to restore SSI, and expand, strengthen and protect the existing programs that alleviate financial burdens on older people. These include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the programs funded under the Older Americans Act. That’s how we’ll fight senior hunger at its root—poverty.
Kevin Prindiville is executive director of Justice in Aging, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October 2015 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store or Join ASA.