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28 Million People in the US Experienced Food Scarcity This Fall

“A full 10 million older Americans worry about having enough food, which is unacceptable,” said one advocate.

This has been an especially challenging year for those experiencing hunger, to put it mildly.

Between inflation, corporate price gouging, reformed supplemental nutrition assistance work requirements, backlogs for aid and expiring pandemic assistance programs, the country has seen a marked increase of food insecurity

Back in March, Salon’s Ashlie D. Stevens wrote that the US was “racing towards a looming ‘hunger cliff” and as the year has gone on, this has become more and more evident. Last month, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey noted that about 28 million people were experiencing food insecurity or food scarcity this fall — a significant portion of which are estimated to be over the age of 65.

In April 2023, Feeding America released “The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2021,” which is part of a recurring series of reports documenting the prevalence of food insecurity among the senior population aged 60 and older. According to their numbers, 5.5 million seniors (or 1 in 14) were food insecure in 2021.

Given the changing hunger landscape in the United States, as well as the economic fallout of the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume those numbers have continued to climb in the ensuing two years. However, according to some food security advocates, serving this population comes with its own challenges, especially this time of year, and they need additional funding to make a more marked difference.

“Many older adults live on fixed incomes like Social Security, pensions, or savings,” Ashley Tyrner, the founder of FarmboxRx and Feed by FarmboxRx, told Salon Food. “As living costs increase, they may struggle to afford nutritious food. Rising healthcare expenses can further strain their budgets, leaving less for food purchases.”

According to Tyner, she was inspired to found the FarmboxRX program — which delivers produce to anywhere in the country, allowing even those living in food deserts to use government benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables — because, 13 years ago, she was a “a single mother on food stamps living in a rural food desert.”

Earlier this year, FarmboxRX surveyed 2,000 individuals who participated in their program in order to paint a fuller picture of the “face” of food insecurity this year. Their data showed “there were clear and consistent trends impacting Americans’ access to food,” including four top reasons Americans struggled to put healthy food on the table: single parenthood, disability and disease, being on a fixed income (including Social Security) and age, in that “someone in the home is over the age of 65 and is either not working, unable to work, and therefore their income does not cover their expenses and food.”

Tyrner explains that this directly impacts the quality of older Americans’ lives. “Food insecurity can exacerbate health problems, leading to a cycle where poor nutrition worsens existing conditions,” she said.

This is also a compounding issue, according to Jenny Young, the Vice President of Communications and Chief of Staff of Meals on Wheels America, which serves an average of 251 million meals each year to 2.2 million seniors nationwide. The population of Americans over the age of 60 “is set to reach 93 million in the next decade, with 118 million expected by 2060, increasing the number of seniors today by more than half.” Young said.

And while Americans are “living longer, they’re doing so with less money,” per Young, which means they are also more at risk of hunger, malnutrition, mobility issues and medication problems.

Organizations, like FarmboxRX and Meals on Wheels, are jumping in to help, but according to Young, there’s a broad need for more funding. Sixty-four percent of local Meals on Wheels programs are “confident they could serve more seniors with more funding” even as some chapters have had to add seniors to waiting lists or discontinue and cut back on their services.

Things unfortunately don’t look much better for seniors in 2024, both due to persistent cost of living increases, as well as a potential national drain on nutrition resources due to planned Republican-led cuts to programs that focus on the food security of other age groups. For instance, Eric Mitchell, who is the president of The Alliance to End Hunger, said his organization is taking a central role in advocating for sufficient appropriations for WIC.

“Under current funding levels, 2 million mothers and children may be turned away from benefits due to insufficient funding levels,” Mitchell told Salon Food. “Further, while inflation is cooling, living expenses continue to be stubbornly high, leading to continuing pressures on SNAP and other nutrition programs. Our worry is that any cuts to one nutrition program would put increased pressure and burden on other programs, as well as food banks.”

He continued: “”While there are a number of policies and programs that are doing fantastic work, the most critical piece of legislation at this point is the Farm Bill, which contains vital authorizations of programs targeting hunger on both the domestic and international fronts. Beyond this immediate priority, an ideal world would see the issue of hunger and malnutrition as a central pillar of US policy, with policies and programs implemented and funded with an eye on equity.”

Jenny Young of Meals on Wheels offers a sobering statistic going into the new year.

“Here’s the troubling reality,” Young said. “At current funding levels, we serve less than a third of the seniors who need us. A full 10 million older Americans worry about having enough food, which is unacceptable. So, we are working hard to find the support needed to be able to serve more seniors and to serve them better.”

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