A 60-something woman with $140 in monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits doesn’t want to buy “junk” food but struggles to afford the produce she needs as a diabetic. A food-insecure woman in her 80s, impoverished since her husband’s death, is too ashamed to ask her children for financial assistance and contemplates suicide. And a functionally illiterate man with annual income of less than $12,000 relies on family members to fill out benefits paperwork—and hunts game to supplement his $16 monthly SNAP benefits.
This is just a tiny sampling of the challenges faced by the 25 million seniors in the U.S. who struggle to make ends meet. They were collected for a 2020 report conducted by Social Policy Research Associates and Mathematica on behalf of the U.S. Department Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to better understand how to improve access to SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, among this extremely vulnerable population.
Not all seniors living below the poverty level officially qualify as “food insecure.” But many older Americans struggle to procure affordable, nutritious, and ample enough food. And those challenges are often invisible in a society that has outmoded ideas of grandparents surrounded by supportive family members or happily ensconced in assisted living facilities, all needs attended to.
Annelies Goger, an economic geographer now at the Brookings Institute who worked on the 2020 report while employed by Social Policy Research Associates, said that misconceptions about seniors persist “because Medicare and Social Security are seen as a pretty big safety net to protect older Americans against economic instability.” But for those without a cushion, she added, “it’s striking how insecure they are and how inadequate” the supplemental programs are that are meant to fill the gaps.
In 2018, 4.7 million men and women over the age of 60 received SNAP benefits, a number experts estimate represents only about one-third of eligible seniors. And some, like the game hunter mentioned above, receive benefits far below their need, an outcome that Eve Anthony, CEO of the Athens Community Council on Aging in Georgia, calls “incredibly insulting to seniors.”
The pandemic has dramatically increased demand for food assistance for seniors and other marginalized groups, even beyond SNAP. For example, Meals on Wheels, which normally provides food for 2.4 million in-need seniors, reports that 79 percent of its regional programs saw demand for meals increase—by 900 percent, in some cases. Requests for assistance in Anthony’s county in Georgia, which has a 26 percent poverty rate among its population of 126,000, almost doubled among seniors, from 215 to 385—although “I know there are more,” she said.
Identifying vulnerability among seniors, let alone figuring out ways to effectively and consistently feed them, remains elusive. For starters, “being able to tease out food insecurity among older adults, for whom there is not a lot of heterogeneity, is tied to measurements that were not developed for these,” but rather for younger populations, like college students, said Cindy Leung, assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “It shows there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Still, a growing body of research by Leung and others seeks to home in on the challenges to better understand possible solutions.
A Complex Web of Challenges
Older adults experience an array of challenges in getting food assistance. Many lack access to transportation and the internet, live in food deserts, face housing instability, have difficulty speaking or reading English, and experience general confusion over whether or not they qualify for SNAP. (SNAP representatives did not respond to requests from Civil Eats for comment about barriers to applying for the program.)
They also have their own unique problems, explained Uche Akobundu, senior director of nutrition strategy and impact for Meals on Wheels America. “Seniors’ access to food is really a multidimensional challenge beyond financial constraints,” she said. “If they’re physically impaired, that makes it a challenge to acquire, prepare, and consume food. They have to be transported to the store, which is more difficult as you get older, and have complex health challenges and limited mobility and functionality. Can we reach, grab, or navigate around the grocery store? Can we move around our home? Are we dining alone, or compelled to feed the cat or [a grandchild] more than ourselves?”
Leung of the University of Michigan published a study in January that found food insecurity among older adults rose from 5.5 percent to 12.4 percent over a 10-year period—with a corresponding decrease in diet quality. To Akobundu’s already extensive list of challenges Leung adds the complexity of trying to find critically important nutritious ingredients on a limited budget.
“For older adults having to manage chronic conditions, it’s more challenging if you’re food insecure to access special foods that are consistent with what your doctor recommends,” she said. “Your caloric needs are also less than for a younger adult population, so that means you have to be mindful of fitting a high-quality diet into fewer calories.”
Her paper makes multiple links between diet quality, food insecurity, age-related physical and mental limitations, chronic disease, and poorer health. As Harvard Medical School assistant professor Seth Berkowitz put it in testimony to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in July 2017, “[H]ealth conditions are often caused or exacerbated by an inadequate diet . . . [and] while there is no evidence that food insecurity causes breast cancer, adequate nutrition is vital when undergoing cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy.”
All of this is exacerbated by secondary factors elucidated by the USDA report: some seniors’ permanent inability to work, their age-related cognitive decline, and major health crises that can sap their savings—especially if they are between 60 and 65 and lost health care benefits but don’t yet quality for Medicare.