The rise of senior food insecurity
The rise of senior food insecurity
The inside of Bruce Allen’s cabinets resembles a grocery store aisle. Cans of black beans, mixed vegetables, carrots, and evaporated milk are stacked perfectly on top of each other. But he only occasionally uses the food inside.
“Right now everything is filled,” he says. “Those are like emergencies. I haven’t touched those, I just keep them there for emergencies.”
A retired 66-year-old, Allen lives on a fixed income from Social Security. He moved to Syracuse, New York, from New Jersey in 2006 and lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment adorned with plants and photos of loved ones. He furnished the place with items from people who were moving or throwing away furniture — he bought his sectional for $20 and repurposed a headboard into a bookshelf for the living room. Allen spends most of his time in the kitchen, where everything is at his disposal: a TV, the fridge, and a window to look out into the parking lot and keep watch on the neighborhood. The chairs are adorned with “miracle cushions” he bought to try to help with lower back pain.
Allen grew up in New Jersey and worked for a sheriff’s department there for more than 20 years, but a series of injuries prevent him from working today. He is a slender man with a clean-shaven face and short dark hair, and when he walks, sometimes the bottom of his right hip will go out with no warning. The stairs leading to his apartment can be a struggle. He tried walking with a cane but it didn’t help. Allen gave his car to his son after college graduation, leaving him with few modes of transportation. For help accessing food, he turns to programs like Meals on Wheels.
He receives the meal delivery service three times a week. Each month, he gets $29 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, $15 of which pays for Meals on Wheels. In addition to the $14 in remaining SNAP benefits, Allen sets aside about $20 of his monthly income to spend on food — typically breakfast items, bread, chocolate milk, and anything else he is craving.
“I calculate everything in my life to the penny,” Allen says.
Allen is a member of the baby boomer generation. The baby boomers are aging into seniors, and by 2035, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of older adults is projected to outnumber children. Ten thousand people will turn 65 in the U.S. every day for the next 11 years.
Experts predict that as the population ages, the number of seniors experiencing food insecurity will likely increase, too. Feeding America defines food insecurity as the lack of consistent access to enough food to sustain a healthy, active life. Nearly 5 million seniors were food insecure in 2016, and the organization projects that number to exceed eight million by 2050, based on population increase alone and assuming the rate of food insecurity remains the same. High rates of food insecurity among seniors are associated with poor health, which could lead to increased pressure on the already-burdened U.S. health care system.
Craig Gundersen, a professor at the University of Illinois, conducted research on senior food insecurity and notes there are health consequences associated with it. “Those are serious, we want to address them,” he says. “They can also make increases in healthcare costs.”
Local and national groups are working to help older adults gain access to enough nutritious food. Although it’s clear the problem will grow, experts are optimistic that there are solutions — but those solutions aren’t clear yet.
Food insecurity can’t be solved with just food, says Hollie Baker-Lutz, program manager for senior hunger at Feeding America. As someone who works with a network of 200 food banks on programs that serve seniors in their communities, Baker-Lutz recognizes that there are a number of underlying issues that contribute to food insecurity, including poverty, social isolation, and mobility issues.
The city of Syracuse is one of the ten poorest places in the United States. Seniors made up 15 percent of the hungry population in central and northern New York in 2017, a 10 percent increase since 2010, according to the Food Bank of Central New York. Census data shows that in 2017, 14.7 percent of the senior population in Syracuse had income below the poverty level, up from 12.5 percent in 2010. Living below the poverty level is common among Meals on Wheels clients, says Beth Gagnon, a case manager with the program who has worked with Allen. “They are often left wondering, ‘Where am I going to get my next meal?’” she says.
Some people rely on SNAP for temporary assistance as their situation changes, but that may not be the case for older adults. Many seniors have worked their whole lives and now live on a fixed income, but retirement often doesn’t look like what they thought it would — they’ve had to work longer than expected and food, rent, and medicine are more expensive. One hundred dollars in March 1980 would go as far as $317 in March 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The money it takes today to make ends meet is not the same as what some folks were saving, Baker-Lutz says.
The issue of food insecurity doesn’t exist in isolation from other household needs. Sixty-three percent of senior households served by Feeding America have to choose between food and medical care. To solve the larger issue, the ways people make tradeoffs within those needs must be explored and connected, Baker-Lutz says.
But poverty rates don’t reveal the full scope of the problem. “I think the government shutdown highlighted this quite well, that there are millions of Americans who are just on the cusp of needing food assistance,” Baker-Lutz says. “These are people who we wouldn’t think of as poor or in poverty or needing help, but so many of us are one disaster away from being in that position.” It could be the car someone relies on to get to work breaks down, or a medical incident blows their savings and prevents them from working — many people don’t have a safety net.
While Allen has food stocked in his cabinets, fridge, and freezer, he worries about medical expenses. From eyeglasses to colonoscopies to dental work, medical costs add up. “Food is easy for me,” Allen says. “The medical co-pays are gonna be a little big problem.”
The impact of social isolation on seniors is another factor receiving more attention lately, Baker-Lutz says. Older adults who don’t have a support system or socialization might not have access to the food assistance they need, and there are physical, mental, and healthcare costs to that.
For some seniors, hunger is not only physical, says Julie Gilbert, resource and referral specialist at the Samaritan Center, a group meal site in Syracuse. Some people can afford to cook a hot dog at home or eat pasta every day, but it’s not beneficial for their health or their heart. They want to feel like they’re part of something, especially if they lose a spouse or their kids move away. Hunger can feel lonely, Gilbert explains. “You might be able to get Meals on Wheels at a discount or pay for people to deliver that kind of thing to your house, but what does that mean to then go and have to eat alone?” she says.
Allen says he enjoys living alone and friends are always calling and visiting. But some seniors look for ways to get out of the house.
On a Friday afternoon in Syracuse, a group of about 20 seniors gathers at the Westcott Community Center for the Senior Nutrition Program. Lunch is served each weekday at noon, and the suggested donation is $3 per person, but they don’t turn anyone away. Pizza and side salads are delivered to tables where seniors are waiting. The film Hidden Figures is playing but most people aren’t paying attention. Chatter floats throughout the room. Bingo preceded lunch and dance classes were to start after the meal.