Hunger Among Older Americans

Chesterfield Polkey and Tadeo Melean 7/24/2019

Bag of Groceries

Nearly one in ten older Americans live below the poverty level. The rate of poverty increases significantly for older Americans of color with poverty rates for African American and Latino populations reaching 19.3 percent and 17.0 percent as of 2017. Around 48 percent of married seniors and 69 percent of single seniors depend entirely, or almost entirely, on Social Security for their monthly income. Even with Social Security, an estimated 5.5 million seniors experience food insecurity, or lack the resources to afford nutritious food. Without proper nutrition, seniors can face worse health outcomes and higher medical costs. Hunger among older Americans will likely continue to rise as the number of Americans 65 and older will have increased from 49 million to over 79 million by 2035.

Senior Health and Nutrition

Worse health outcomes correlate with high levels of food insecurity. Food insecure seniors are:

  • 65 percent more likely to be diabetic.
  • 91 percent more likely to develop asthma.
  • 66 percent more likely to report heart attacks and 57 percent more likely to report congestive heart failure.  And 2.3 times more likely to suffer from depression.

Additionally, food insecure individuals experience decreased resistance to infections and lengthened hospital stays, which ultimately results in higher medical costs. Almost one third of food insecure seniors have a disability.

Food can help older Americans with chronic diseases. Seniors who are food secure experience a better response to medication, can maintain and gain strength faster, and have overall higher chances of recovery and health maintenance. Access to proper nutrition can be a part of overall good health including for the prevention of diabetes, hypertension and heart and lung problems.

State Legislative Action:

Maryland enacted S 758 in May, 2016 to provide seniors with additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. This law requires the state to increase the minimum benefit from $16 to $30 for seniors 62 and older. Nearly 40 percent of households with one or more seniors receive SNAP benefits in Maryland.

Arkansas provided funds through S 531 in March, 2015 for the Arkansas Division of Aging and Adult Services to support the state’s Meals on Wheels. In the appropriations package, the legislature required the $400,000 to be used for construction, renovation, personal services, operating expenses, and major maintenance expenses.

California established the Nutrition Incentive Matching Grant Program in 2015 through A 1321. The California Office of Farm to Fork would provide grant funding to encourage the purchase and consumption of healthy foods as well as encourage participation in programs like the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

Pennsylvania adopted HR 160 in 2019 designating March 22 as March for Meals Day. The resolution was adopted to raise awareness of senior hunger and encourage action in communities across the state.

Federal Programs Addressing Senior Hunger:

The Older Americans Act (OAA):  The OAA was enacted to provide funding for a comprehensive set of services for the population age 60 and older. Within Title III  of the OAA are regulations and programs to help reduce hunger and food insecurity and promote socialization among vulnerable older Americans. The three main nutrition programs administered by the Administration on Aging in HHS are:

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): SNAP is a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides monthly food assistance benefits to low income Americans, including 4.7 million older Americans. USDA disseminates SNAP benefits through Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards that can be used to purchase foods at approved grocery stores and meal delivery services, such as Meals on Wheels. Over 225 million meals in 2018 were delivered to 2.4 million seniors. However, three out of five seniors who qualify for SNAP do not participate in the nutrition program. Eligible seniors in larger, more rural states are less likely to have been enrolled in SNAP. Several reasons exist for low SNAP participation among seniors including stigma, complex application process and ignorance of the program’s existence.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CFSP): CFSP is a discretionary USDA program that provides low-income seniors (60 years and older) with a nutritionally-balanced food package each month. State agencies—typically health, social services, education, or agriculture—store CSFP food and distribute it to local public and nonprofit agencies that have contact with eligible seniors. CSFP is available in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and five Tribal Organizations. Almost 630,000 seniors participated in CFSP in 2017.

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP): The USDA provides grants to states to provide nutritious meals to eligible children and adults enrolled for care at certain child care centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers. Around 130,000 adults received nutritious meals due to CACFP in 2017.

Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP): The USDA awards grants to states to provide eligible low-income seniors with coupons that can be used to purchase foods at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community agriculture programs. Eligible foods include fruits, vegetables, honey and fresh-cut herbs. Forty-two states participate in SFMNP. In fiscal year 2017, over 811,000 seniors received SFMNP benefits.

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR): Through FDPIR, USDA foods are provided to low-income households and the elderly living on Indian reservations. The program also serves Native American families and seniors residing near reservations and designated areas in the state of Oklahoma. Many of these households participate in FDPIR as an alternative to SNAP as eligible offices or retailers cannot be found nearby. Monthly participation for fiscal year 2017 averaged over 90,000 individuals.

Legislative Options:

  • Raise awareness of senior hunger in the community through press events, your newsletter or website (see examples in New York or Connecticut), or through policy resolutions (see examples in Pennsylvania and South Carolina).
  • Bring community organizations, food banks, and seniors together to consider existing programs.
  • Visit local senior centers or food banks to learn more about programs such as SNAP and CACFP and see them in action.
  • Lead a meeting with state agencies or governors to work on outreach and engagement of vulnerable seniors in the community.

NCSL Resources

Prepared by Chesterfield Polkey, a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow ’19 with the NCSL Hunger Partnership and Tadeo Melean Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow ’14.

Additional Resources