Roughly 5.2 million older Americans (7.1%) faced food insecurity in 2019. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, this problem has gotten bigger.
What is food insecurity? It refers to having a consistent lack of access to sufficient amounts of healthy food.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one solution that’s helping to remedy the issue of food insecurity among older adults.
In a nation known for its wealth, too many older adults don’t have enough food to eat. Roughly 5.2 million older Americans (7.1%) faced food insecurity in 2019.1 When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, many older adults weren't able to gain access to food, or were 'food insecure'. This was the result of factors like income loss, fear of leaving the house, and lack of help with grocery shopping and transportation.
But, what does food insecurity mean?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity is defined as "a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food." In simple terms, food-insecure older adults can't rely on getting enough food to lead a healthy and active life.
While older adults are at higher risk for food insecurity, they're certainly not alone. More than 38 million Americans of all ages were food insecure in 2020.2
The USDA defines two degrees of food insecurity:
- Low food security: People with low food security lack dietary quality and variety and may not be able to buy all the foods they enjoy. However, they don’t necessarily eat less than they need. For example, an older adult with low food security might depend on the same inexpensive food items and eat these foods repeatedly. Their diet may be heavy in unhealthier processed foods versus nutrient-dense foods that cost more, such as fruits and vegetables.
- Very low food security: If a senior is experiencing very low food security, they may eat less food than they need overall. They might regularly skip meals or eat very small portions to stretch their budget further.
What’s the difference between food insecurity and hunger?
Food insecurity isn’t the same thing as hunger. While food insecurity focuses on lacking access to adequate food, hunger is a physiological condition. Someone who is hungry doesn’t just experience a rumbling tummy. They may suffer from serious discomfort, pain, weakness, or even illness due to being involuntarily without food for an extended period.
Although food insecurity and hunger aren’t interchangeable terms, they are closely related. Older adults with very low food security often face a real risk of going hungry.
Who does food insecurity affect most among older adults?
In its report, The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2019, Feeding America found that food insecurity disproportionately affects older adults who:
- Have lower incomes
- Are younger—ages 60 to 69
- Rent vs. own their homes
Racial and ethnic minorities are also more vulnerable to food insecurity. White older adults are less than half as likely as Black older adults to experience food access issues.1 One reason for this is that many seniors in minority communities live in food deserts, where they don’t have convenient access to full-service grocery stores.
What causes food insecurity?
Food insecurity is a complex issue that usually doesn’t have one particular cause. Food insecure seniors may face many factors that make it difficult to access resources to meet their basic needs. One of these is poverty, often resulting from living on a low fixed income. Food insecurity rates are significantly higher for adults with incomes less than two times the poverty line.3 Other factors include:
- Social isolation
- Chronic or acute health conditions
- High healthcare expenses
- Lack of affordable housing
- Systemic racism and racial discrimination
What are the effects of food insecurity?
Seniors have unique nutrition needs, and not having enough wholesome food to eat can create harmful health effects. Food insecurity has been linked with:
- Lower nutrient intakes: Older adults with food insecurity consume lower levels of key nutrients such as protein, vitamins A and C, magnesium, calcium, and iron. Insufficient nutrition can lead to malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, and chronic diseases.
- Poorer health outcomes: Seniors who are food insecure are 65% more likely to be diabetic. They are also more likely to suffer from conditions such as congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, and gum disease. One study found that food insecurity in adults aged 50 and older may be linked with more wear and tear on the body.4 These poorer outcomes aren’t just the result of poor nutrition. Often, older adults with food insecurity must choose between buying food and visiting their doctor or paying for medications that keep them healthy.
- Mental health issues: The constant worry and uncertainty associated with food insecurity can take a toll on a person’s psychological well-being. One study showed a clear connection between food insecurity and depression. The same study demonstrated that food-insecure households in North America were at the highest risk for stress and anxiety.5
How can older adults who are 'food insecure' get help?
If you’re having trouble affording healthy food, or if you know an older adult who is, help is available. One of the most common solutions to food insecurity in the U.S. is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. SNAP is a need-based, government anti-hunger program that helps eligible older adults buy the food they need to stay nourished, healthy, and active.
Not familiar with SNAP? The first step is to learn more about this vital food assistance program. Visit our SNAP for Older Adults resource library to learn about topics such as:
- How to apply for SNAP
- Understanding SNAP income limits
- Where you can use your SNAP benefits
- What you can buy with SNAP benefits
In addition to SNAP, you can explore other food assistance programs for older adults including the Senior Food Box Program, The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, and the The Emergency Food Assistance Program.
Check your eligibility for food assistance programs
When you’re ready, you can use NCOA’s confidential screening tool, BenefitsCheckup, to determine whether you qualify for SNAP or other food assistance programs. Just visit BenefitsCheckup.org and enter your zip code to get started. You have nothing to lose by seeing if you qualify—and if you do, the benefits you receive could be life-changing.
1. The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2019, Feeding America. Found on the internet at https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/2021%20-%20State%20of%20Senior%20Hunger%20in%202019.pdf
2. Household Food Security in the United States in 2018, U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (2019). Found on the internet at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/94849/err-270.pdf?v=963.1
3. The Health Consequences of Senior Hunger in the United States: Evidence from the 1999-2014 NHANES, Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (2017). Found on the internet at https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/research/senior-hunger-research/senior-health-consequences-2014.pdf
4. Pak, et al., Association of Food Insecurity with Allostatic Load Among Older Adults in the U.S., JAMA Network Open. Found on the internet at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2786917
5. Pourmotabbed, et al., Food insecurity and mental health: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Public Health Nutrition (2020). Found on the internet at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32174292/