One in six seniors have inadequate access to food

Washington Watch

Millions of seniors are struggling to put food on the table, a dramatic spike in the problem, according to two new reports. Despite the recent uptick in the U.S. economy, an astonishingly large number of Americans – 9.6 million over the age of 60 – could not reliably buy or access food at least part of the year.

That’s one in every six older men and women. And those numbers are much lower than the reality. Analysts say that large groups of seniors aren’t even being included in those numbers because it’s hard to reach them to find out they aren’t eating.

In their early ’60s, many people “are kind of transitioning from work into retirement, and ... may not have access to the health safety net,” said James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research and a co-author of the report. “So some of the folks may face this trade-off between paying for prescription drugs versus feeding themselves.”

Ziliak’s study, commissioned by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH), using 2013 numbers, the latest available from the U.S. Census, found since the onset of the recession in 2007, the percentage of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger increased 28 percent, a larger jump than the increase in the number of seniors over age 60, which is now 60.4 million.

A second study, commissioned by the AARP Foundation and conducted by researchers at University of Central Florida, focused on those over 40 years old and found that 18 percent of people over that age face food security issues.

The rate of food insecurity – what the government calls a disruption in the daily task of maintaining a basic, nutritious diet – has more than doubled since 2001, according to NFESH, and that number is expected to skyrocket as the baby boom generation gets older.

Putting a human face on the problem brings a different dimension when that face is your mom or dad or someone we know. Mina and Angelo Maffucci of south Florida, found themselves in this predicament – needing help but not knowing where to go to ask for it, according to Kaiser Health News’ Sarah Varney.

The New Jersey couple had sold their home after raising three children and retired to southwest Florida. But overtaken by illness, bad luck and the economic crisis that claimed their Florida dream home to foreclosure, they soon found themselves living in their son’s apartment, literally staring at an empty cupboard.

“We opened up the closet, and all we had was coffee, so we made it,” Angelo Maffucci, 82, told Kaiser Health News and the PBS Newshour. “And that’s what we had. If we found a slice of toast or something, we had that, too. Cereal, once in a blue moon. …I never thought we would be down on our hands and knees like that, but it happened fast.”

The bigger problem for the Maffuccis was what to do about it, and getting over their pride – learned from surviving the 1930s Depression – to ask for help. Now, they get deliveries from a local food pantry and receive $34 a week in food stamps.

But a large group of seniors are in this position and are not counted in the 9.6 million facing food insecurity issues, according to Peggy Ingraham, the executive vice president of NFESH. While food stamps tend to cover the poorest of the poor, Ingraham points out that about 30 percent of seniors who are food insecure have incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty level. That means that many, if not most of these folks, are also struggling to eat on a regular basis but are not quite eligible for federal assistance.

Ingraham argues that what is under-reported is the number of seniors facing food insecurity are other unintended health consequences. Some of these are intuitive – without a good diet, people become frail and weak. It’s no surprise then, that people have higher rates of diabetes.

But this kind of food insecurity among seniors raises the likelihood of other negative health consequences by more than 50 percent, Ingraham argues. “We’ve seen hypertension among food-insecure seniors 14 percent more than other seniors and a 60 percent increase in the likelihood of people experiencing heart attacks,” she said. In addition, they “also have much higher rates of diseases we don’t normally associate with seniors – they are three times more likely to be depressed and two times more likely to have asthma.”

Chronically hungry elders also face higher rates of congestive heart failure and heart attack and many seniors simply aged dramatically beyond their years because of the stress of not being able to eat regularly, limiting their ability to do daily activities.

“So a 64 year old suffering hunger was likely to have a 78 year old’s activity level, in terms of quality of life,” Ingraham explains. “After that, many spiral downward and start losing basic life skills,” she warns – like the ability to feed themselves.

While there are many federal food aid programs, one of the toughest problems is finding the people who need the help the most. Unlike with children, where the federal school nutrition programs are able to reach kids who otherwise can’t get healthy food on a regular basis, many seniors live in gated communities, so it’s much harder to reach them.

Just think about many of the seniors who spend most of their time at home – would you know if they were unable to feed themselves or too proud to ask for help?

How to fix the problem

There are food programs at churches, temples, area agencies on aging offices all around the United States. For those that can’t get out to a meal site, programs exist for homebound seniors like the federally-funded Meals on Wheels and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program designed to help seniors get groceries delivered to them. Unfortunately, many of these programs have long wait lists that sometimes take years to get through.

Another problem is that many seniors don’t realize they are eligible for food stamps. Only an estimated 35 percent of eligible seniors participate in the food stamp program compared to 85.8 percent of eligible children, and 67 percent of eligible people overall.

“If you’re a single senior sitting in an apartment, you don’t know what to do,” argues Al Brislain, who heads the Harry Chapin Food Bank, named after the 1970s folk singer who gave the proceeds of every other concert he performed to organizations fighting hunger.

How big and under-reported is this problem? Huge. Jackie Faffer of the Jewish Family and Community Services of southwest Florida originally established her weekly luncheons to give older Floridians a place to socialize. But she quickly saw how desperately people needed the food she serves. Of her 676 members, Faffer said, about 60 percent are at near or below the poverty line. And that’s in affluent Naples, Florida, suggesting that the number of older people struggling to eat might be considerably larger than studies are showing.

The innovative answers to reaching those in need are mostly coming from local communities around the U.S. Across the state of California, a program called Market Match offers matching funds to allow food stamp benefits dollars go farther, when the money is spent at local farmers markets.

The AARP Foundation has recently funded grants to the People’s Emergency Center and the West Philadelphia Food Hub to help establish a permanent neighborhood market to expand their existing mobile fresh food distribution program to low-income senior housing facilities in West Philadelphia; and another grant to the Angelic Organics Learning Center in Rockford, Illinois, to help them set up a community-supported farm designed to help seniors get deliveries of locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

Project Bread, in Massachusetts, which offers a series of different programs for children and working-poor families, immigrants, the disabled, and seniors who are dealing with hunger issues, has set up a gift card program designed to help seniors shop at local grocery stores as well as providing delivery to those who are homebound.

In D.C., Ingraham and her folks at NFESH have developed the “What A Waste” pilot program designed to reverse the waste of food that could instead go to feed food-insecure seniors. Just look at the paradox, Ingraham argues. “We are throwing away more than 40 percent of the food that is produced in this country while at the same time more than 9 million seniors are missing meals.” So NFESH is working with kitchen staff at restaurants in the nation’s capital to reduce waste, and instead feed seniors. They are taking and re-using what is being thrown out and they are composting actual waste to help build gardens for senior centers grow vegetables.

NFESH offers to help any community interested in joining them in a similar program.

Also contributing to this column were Kaiser Health News and the Washington Post.

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