Food insecurity among seniors is overlooked, ‘very hidden’
A volunteer packs food at Three Square Senior Hunger Campus. (Photo courtesy Three Square of Southern Nevada)
In the past two decades, food insecurity has doubled among older adults, and the pandemic only complicated low-income seniors’ access to food.
Hunger, inadequate housing, social isolation, and poverty are linked to poor health, especially as we age.
And the scale of food insecurity among the elderly in the U.S. is often ignored, said Jocelyn Lantrip, director of marketing and communications for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada.
“Senior hunger happens a lot more than you’d think. More seniors in your community are struggling more than you know. It’s a very hidden problem,” Lantrip said.
During the pandemic social distancing has helped limit the spread of the virus and protect more vulnerable populations, including the elderly. But that also stopped low-income seniors from accessing group meals at senior centers or food banks.
“A lot of seniors rely on senior centers,” said Lantrip. “ And they have been closed. Some are only starting to open up. That’s been a real problem for seniors. It’s one of those things that was necessary but placed a huge burden on seniors.”
Seniors often require special diets to maintain their health, said Lantrip, but even programs that help seniors meet their nutritional requirements were affected by the pandemic.
During the pandemic, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada found that their Nutrition Education program, a program that teaches seniors how to get the most nutrition with a limited food budget, saw a large drop in participation when it was forced online for safety.
“It was difficult to reach out to the seniors online. It seems technology was a barrier,” Lantrip said.
One in every 10 Nevada seniors don’t know where their next meal is coming from, says Feeding America, a national network of nonprofit food banks. The pandemic exacerbated food insecurity for seniors in Nevada, but it has been a growing issue in the state for years.
According to Feeding America, Nevada has the fourth highest rate of food insecurity among seniors in the U.S. – tied with Texas, in 2018 the latest data available. Nevada also has the second highest rates of very low food security among seniors in the nation, meaning seniors reported skipping meals to cut costs.
What’s more, the number of retirement-age residents is rapidly increasing in Nevada, with nearly 1 in 6 residents now aged 65 or older, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning that year after year a growing number of elderly people are at risk of being food insecure.
Lantrip said there is less emphasis on senior hunger programs in the state than on broader programs for families due to the lack of understanding of the issue’s scale.
“In many programs, you’ll see a lot more emphasis on children, and obviously we focus a great deal of effort on our children, but one of the things we try to tell people is that seniors have just as much of a difficult time changing their situation as a child does,” Lantrip said.
Seniors tend to live on fixed incomes and have limited transportation options, making them especially vulnerable to rising rent prices and inflation. Seniors also typically do not have enough savings or the ability to work to make ends meet when unexpected expenses arise.
“As things go back to normal we’re pretty certain it will be a much longer haul for low-income seniors,” said Lantrip.
Pandemic-related production roadblocks have contributed to rising prices for agricultural production for consumers, including seniors.
In March 2020, consumer price indexes for food at home posted some of the largest monthly increases of recent years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. From March to June 2020 beef prices for consumers rose more than 20 percent, but all other food groups also increased in price.
Those higher food prices are expected to continue. In 2021, the price of groceries are expected to increase between 2.0 and 3.0 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even small increases in food or rent prices can cost seniors on a fixed income, said Jodi Tyson, Three Square’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.
“If we look at rent and housing prices, even just small increments of these things make a big difference to seniors,” said Tyson. “Rent increase can make a big difference when you’re living on a limited income.”
Reaching seniors who are food insecure is also a challenge, say food bank operators, a little over half of all seniors who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) do not participate. While there has been a steady increase in senior SNAP enrollment over the past decade, only 48% of those who are eligible for the program are enrolled.
The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services estimates that in May 2020 during the pandemic the SNAP saw increased participation of nearly 12% for those 50 and older compared to the same time last year.
The growth in participants has leveled off, but SNAP participation of those 50 and older remains higher than the same time period in 2019, before the pandemic hit the state.
Still, food bank operators believe there are more food insecure seniors than data shows. Barriers like low awareness of eligibility and inability to navigate the application process may hold many seniors back.
“Just based on the call volume and the people who reached out, we know that senior hunger increased during the pandemic,” said Tyson.
The Division of Welfare and Supportive Services says they work with outside agencies to remove those barriers to access so those who are eligible for SNAP can enroll. The division works with the Aging and Disability Services to make applications available during house visits to the elderly and disabled.
However, Tyson said the stigma of asking for state assistance among older adults is an issue.
“One of the things we found at our foodbank is that seniors are often reluctant to ask for help,” Tyson said. “We hear often that they are certain someone needs it more than them, but the truth is their costs are going up just as much as anyone else.”
The Food Bank of Northern Nevada and Three Square of Southern Nevada have partnered to launch an awareness campaign about food assistance and emergency aid programs available to seniors, made possible by a grant from Feeding America.
The partnership will allow the food banks to bolster their senior hunger programs and raise awareness of the senior hunger crisis across the state.
“Thanks to this partnership and the hunger-fighting powerhouse it created, we’re able to cover more ground and help even more of Nevada’s seniors in need,” said Lisa Segler, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Three Square.
The grant will allow food banks to grow the state’s Golden Groceries program,which provides healthy supplemental groceries at no cost to those 60 years of age and older who are food insecure. Three Square and FBNN also offer a variety of other programs.
Three Square helps older adults in need through its Community Meal Program, Seniors Eating Well, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Energy Assistance Program, Project Reach, Medicare Savings Program and more. Southern Nevada residents who are at least 6o years of age are encouraged to call Three Square’s Call Center at 702.765.4030 Monday-Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. or visit threesquare.org.
The FBNN senior food programs includes its Senior Box Program (CSFP), Produce on Wheels, Seniors Eating Well nutrition program, Golden Groceries pantries, and SNAP outreach. The FBNN encourages all Northern Nevadans who are 60 years old and over who could use assistance to visit fbnn.org or call 775-331-3663.
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