Written by Margaret B. Ingraham, MA, Executive Vice President, National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.
A problem with far-reaching consequences
Millions of older individuals in the United States face the threat of hunger, and their numbers continue to increase at a rate faster than the growth of the senior population. These facts disturbing but so, too, are the general lack of awareness about the issue of senior hunger, and the absence of public will and a coordinated national strategy to address and reverse it.
The first comprehensive national study to examine the issue of senior hunger was not undertaken until 2008. That research, carried out by Co-Principal Investigators Dr. James P. Ziliak of the University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois, found that 5 million seniors, or 11.4 % of all seniors in the United States, had faced the threat of hunger in 2005. By 2010, the number had risen to 8.3 million, or 14.85%. In that half decade alone, the number of seniors (defined as individuals age 60 and older) facing the threat of hunger had increased by 78% in the general older population. Among certain subgroups and cohorts, the data are more striking. For example, among the African-American and Hispanic elderly the increases were 131% and 132% respectively.
Source: Senior Hunger in America 2010: An Annual Report, Dr. James P. Ziliak and Dr. Craig Gundersen for the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger
While African-American and Hispanic elders are known to be at particular risk, most seniors facing the threat of hunger are white. Income below the federal poverty line is another risk factor for seniors, but from 2009 to 2010, the largest growth in the threat of hunger was faced by individuals whose incomes were between 100% and 200% of the poverty level. There were also slight increases among seniors with incomes above 200% of poverty. In other words, the threat of hunger among seniors is pervasive and its prevalence and growth are not confined to those individuals in risk categories. One expert has suggested that, if the trend continues, the threat of hunger will likely soon become a middle-class problem with which the nation is not prepared to deal.
Consequences for older adults facing hunger
When it comes to issues related to hunger, seniors face different challenges than other age cohorts do. For example, when food insecurity rates improved slightly between 2007 and 2010 in other age cohorts and in the population as a whole, they actually grew worse among those age 60 and above. Furthermore, the risk of hunger does not exist in isolation; it has a staggering negative impact on a senior’s overall quality of life. Research has found that a senior at risk of hunger has the same chance of a limitation in Activities of Daily Living (ADL) as an individual 14 years older. ADLs refer to such things as eating, walking, toileting, and transferring. There is, in effect, a large disparity between actual chronological age and “physical” age. This hunger-aging-ADL connection was not found to be present in the 50-59 and younger age cohorts.
Because so little attention historically has been paid to the issue of hunger among seniors, there is much still to be learned. This includes its causes and the full impact of its consequences on seniors, their families, communities, and the nation as a whole. This we do know: the consequences of the senior hunger epidemic reach far beyond food insecurity itself.
If the threat of hunger among seniors is not immediately and adequately addressed, and if interventions are not put into place to prevent it as the aging population continues to grow at an unprecedented pace, the strain on the American economy, felt primarily through the health care system, will be enormous.
How philanthropy has helped
Most likely because attention has only recently turned to the issue, funding has been primarily confined to defining the problem. That is, funders have focused on defining the scope of the problem and understanding the causes, risk factors, prevalence, and to a lesser degree, the consequences of senior hunger. In addition, funders have provided resources to provide meals to those currently in need. Some limited efforts have been made to address long-term need by encouraging operational changes to ensure sustainability, but much remains to be done in this area.
Grantmakers have been involved in senior hunger issues in several ways:
- The Harrah’s Foundation (and its successor Caesars Foundation) provided funding for “The Causes, Consequences and Future of Senior Hunger in America,” “Senior Hunger in the United States: Differences across States and Rural and Urban Areas,” and “Senior Hunger in America 2010: An Annual Report” for the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (and its predecessor organizations), all of which document the scope, prevalence, and growth of senior hunger in individuals age 60 and older.
- The Walmart Foundation funded a national awareness campaign around senior nutrition programs, the development and launch of an online nutrition resource library, and provided funds to local Meals on Wheels and other community-based programs to provide additional meals to seniors needing them and to encourage operational improvements to create sustainability for future growth.
- The Merck Company Foundation supported research examining food insecurity in multi-generational households, and health outcomes and family change in those households.
- The AARP Foundation supported research like that underwritten by Caesars (above) looking at the 50 to 60 age cohort, and sponsored the NASCAR program, “Drive to End Hunger.”
- In an effort to help relieve hunger among older adults, the Winter Park Health Foundation teamed up with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida and AARP. A grant of $52,250 helped Second Harvest purchase food to distribute to low-income seniors in the area. Fifty AARP volunteers helped to assemble over 5,000 10-pound food packs, which included items from each major food group. Faith communities, food pantries, congregate meal sites, low- income senior housing communities, and a select number of Walgreens pharmacies helped with distribution, which kept transportation costs to a minimum. Each food pack, which fed one older adults for four days, also contained a list of contact information for community resources and services.
- Garden plots sow healthy lifestyles. The Kansas City Community Gardens helped 200 low-income, older adults grow food in garden plots located in backyards, vacant lots, and community sites. A $12,000 grant from the Jewish Heritage Foundation helped purchase seeds, fertilizer, plants, and tilling for participants. The new gardeners reported improved nutrition, increased exercise and physical activity level, increased self-sufficiency, and positive mental health as a result of their gardening
The visibility of senior hunger is a relatively new issue, with research and foundation funding emerging only in the last four years. Therefore, most issues related to senior hunger could be called “trending,” since there is still much to learn about hunger and food insecurity in the older population. However, these are some of the key issues where research is still ongoing and where funders could provide key start-up support:
- Obesity and hunger: The correlation between good nutrition and good health is well-accepted, and the direct impact of proper nutrition on specific diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and certain types of cancers, is well-documented. Also documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the fact that obese individuals are at greater risk of those and other diseases than are adults of healthy weight. While it may seem counterintuitive that many individuals facing the threat of hunger would be obese, it is frequently the case. Obesity rates are high among those threatened with and at risk of hunger. The significant U.S. medical costs attributable to diseases associated with obesity have been well documented by the CDC and others. The same attention has not been given to determining the national health care savings that could be realized by reducing the incidence of obesity through interventions designed to ensure that individuals at risk of hunger receive proper nutrition, not just food.
- Hunger, health, and long-term care: The whole issue of the connection between hunger and health, between hunger and health care costs, and of the place of meal provision and nutrition education in the emerging long-term services and support system (LTSS) remains relatively unexamined. Research in this area could assist in the development of public policies intended to improve health and reduce social and economic costs to the nation. For example, projects that test the integration of nutrition services as a standard element in the LTSS system should be the first step.
- New program models: Support is needed for programs that emphasize collaboration to achieve collective impact, and programs that employ a multigenerational approach to reducing hunger. For example, the New York Community Trust started Healthy Food, Healthy Communities, a program that recruits older adults to help people in low-income neighborhoods eat better. With matching grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies’ Community Experience Partnership, the New York Community Trust made over $300,000 in grants to four projects. Old and young volunteers run wholesale fresh food buyers’ clubs, work on urban farms, sell food at local farmers’ markets, and grow food on public housing grounds.
- Food waste: It is estimated that up to 40% of the food produced in the United States never gets eaten, for reasons ranging from improper harvesting and storage, to our insistence on only buying “perfect” food, to purchased food that’s never eaten. Some anti-hunger programs, such as Hunger Free Vermont, have developed limited food recapture programs that assist them in providing food to the hungry. More organizations, and the individuals whom they serve, could likely benefit significantly from similar programs. While it is intuitive that recaptured food increases the amount of food available, the cost benefits of creating and implementing recapture programs are not well documented or promoted. Research projects designed to quantify and improve the actual financial benefit of such programs could be helpful.
- Immediacy and Sustainability: Understandably, most hunger relief organizations and programs focus their efforts on the short term, that is, on addressing the immediate needs of individuals facing hunger. Other projects may concentrate on developing future-oriented approaches that will guarantee the sustainability and viability of hunger relief efforts in the future. More attention should be given to developing and testing programs and projects that combine present day interventions and delivery of immediate food assistance with long-term solutions that combine nutrition education and sustainable food production and preservation. Because of their complexity, and the several areas of expertise that they require, such projects would likely take the form of collaborations and therefore might require substantial commitments from the funder(s).
- Policy initiatives: The abilities of states, localities, and programs to provide nutrition services to individuals in greatest need depend largely on the availability of financial resources. In many, if not most, cases the primary source of funding is the federal government. Often funds for these programs are distributed based on the overall population of certain age cohorts. This is true of Older Americans Act programs. Age and density of population are not, of themselves, necessarily the best indicators of need. Through research and experience, we have identified the risk factors for senior hunger. New pilot projects designed to test policy initiatives that will drive public funding to the areas of greatest need, foster a reexamination of current funding formulas, and tie resources to risk factors are needed.
Source: National Foundation to End Senior Hunger January 2013
Basic References on Senior Hunger
Reports and Issue Briefs:
“The Causes, Consequences and Future of Senior Hunger in America,” 2008 report from the Meals On Wheels Association of America Foundation (now the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger). Research conducted by Co-Principal Investigators Dr. James P. Ziliak, University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen, Iowa State University. First national study to look at the scope of senior hunger and the risk factors associated with hunger in the older population.
“Senior Hunger in the United States: Differences across States and Rural and Urban Areas,” 2009 research sponsored by the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation (now the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger), conducted by Co-Principal Investigators Dr. James P. Ziliak, University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen, University of Illinois. State-by-state breakdowns of the prevalence of senior hunger.
“Senior Hunger in America 2010: An Annual Report” Research published in 2012, sponsored by the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation (now the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger), conducted by Dr. James P. Ziliak, University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen, University of Illinois. Annual report on older adults facing the threat of hunger.
“Food Insecurity Among Older Adults,” 2011 research conducted for the AARP Foundation by Dr. James P. Ziliak, University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen, University of Illinois. Report of research focusing on the 50-59 age group.
“One in Four Mississippi Residents Struggle to Afford Food,” a 2012 brief from Gallup that provides a quick view of food insecurity by state.
Hungry in America, a four-part video series from the AARP Foundation on why older Americans aren’t getting enough to eat and some solutions to the problem.
“Senior Hunger,” a downloadable .mp3 transcript of the Tom Ashbrook “On Point” radio program for WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. The July 2012 discussion features Enid Borden, President and CEO of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, James Ziliack, Director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, and Seth Hancock, filmmaker, whose documentary “Leftovers” explores the topic of senior hunger in America.
Resource Centers on Senior Hunger
AARP Foundation: Hunger is one of the main programmatic emphases of the AARP Foundation, which focuses on creating social change. The web site provides access to research information, multimedia educational materials, information on community projects, and a national partnership with NASCAR, the Drive to End Hunger.
Food Research and Action Center: A policy organization focusing on eradicating hunger and undernutrition, the FRAC site has information on senior hunger and the older population’s participation in SNAP (the food stamp program).
Meals On Wheels Association of America: The national organization representing community senior nutrition programs. Its web site has useful short videos that can enhance presentations.
National Foundation to End Senior Hunger: Formerly the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation, NFESH promotes research and policy approaches to ending senior hunger. The site provides access to research findings on senior hunger and information on NFESH’s community projects.
Other Organizations Involved in Senior Hunger Issues
Feeding America: The site has a small section on facts about senior hunger that places the issue within the larger context of hunger in America.
National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities (formerly the National Association of State Units on Aging): National organization supporting state systems for delivering home and community-based services. Use site search engine to identify policy materials and resources related to senior hunger.
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: National organization supporting Area Agencies on Aging in providing home and community-based services. Use site search engine to identify resources and community projects related to senior hunger.
National Council on Aging: As part of its efforts to enhance economic security for older adults, NCOA has information and multimedia materials on hunger and health, and promotes identifying public benefits for which seniors are eligible.
National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging: A project of the Meals On Wheels Association of America and the U.S. Administration on Aging, this site contains information and educational resources for professionals in the nutrition and aging network.