In their recent report, The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2015, Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger examined how levels of food insecurity among seniors have changed since 2001. The study asked respondents questions designed to judge their own food insecurity over the previous 30 days as well as over the previous 12 months. The report divided respondents into three separate categories:
- The threat of hunger: where a person is defined as marginally food insecure.
- The risk of hunger: when a person is food insecure.
- Facing hunger: when a person is very low food secure.
The report found that 14.7% of seniors face the threat of hunger, which translates into 9.8 million seniors nationwide. This number fell by 1 percentage point between 2014 and 2015, but remains higher than at the start of the Great Recession in 2007, and far higher than in 2001. In fact the fraction of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger increased by an astonishing 37% during those years. These findings signal a potential public health crisis as more Americans will age into retirement in the coming years.
Breaking Down the Numbers
As might be expected, income levels have a big effect on food security. The study found that 45.3% of households with incomes below the poverty line faced the threat of hunger in 2015. By contrast, when incomes rise to twice the poverty line, the threat of hunger fell to 7.5%. But surprisingly, when measured in total, the majority of seniors facing the threat of hunger have incomes above the poverty line. Members of racial or ethnic minorities as well as people living in the South and Southeast faced the greatest risk of hunger.
Marital status also served as an important indicator. According to the report, “[t]he threat of hunger among divorced or separated and among never married seniors is substantially greater than married seniors.” In addition, the report found that:
“As age increases, rates of the threat of hunger fall. For example, seniors between the ages of 60 and 64 have rates that are over 50 percent higher than those over the age of 80. The threat of hunger is over 3 times higher among persons with disability in comparison to the retired or employed, and if a grandchild is present, the threat of hunger is more than two-times higher than among households with no grandchildren present.”
So it’s clear that food security is an issue touching seniors across many demographic segments. But why?
Many Factors at Play
There may not be a single clear answer as to why food insecurity is growing. Economic factors certainly play a role. But as seniors age, everyday tasks like grocery shopping and cooking become more difficult. Government benefits like Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help mitigate food insecurity. But managing those processes can also be difficult for many seniors.
More than anything, these statistics underscore the importance of being involved in senior’s lives. Older Americans facing the threat of hunger likely won’t talk openly about their struggles, but are facing the consequences nevertheless. Do you know if the seniors in your own life are getting the nutrition they need? It might be time to check. This is a problem facing the entire country, and it’s going to take all of us working together to solve it.