Seniors Are Struggling to Afford Food in the U.S., And It’s Only Getting Worse

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The golden years might not be as golden anymore as many retirees are now facing the stark reality of struggling to afford basic needs like food—a situation that’s predicted to get worse. 

Sharp Rise in Seniors’ Food Insecurity


Over the last two decades, there’s been a significant rise in food insecurity among American households with individuals over 60. Research highlighted in a medical journal reveals that while 12.5% of such families faced difficulties between 1999 and 2003, the figure nearly doubled to 23.1% in the period from 2015 to 2019.

Recurring Hunger Issues Surge Among Seniors


The incidence of recurring food insecurity—meaning households experienced it in two or more survey periods—more than doubled from 5.6% during 1999-2003 to 12.6% in 2015-2019. Similarly, chronic food insecurity, observed in all three survey waves, more than tripled from 2.0% to 6.3% in the same periods. 

Racial Disparities in Senior Food Access


This increasing trend spans across all racial groups, affecting Black, Hispanic, and White families with older adults. 

Over 20 years, recurring food insecurity in Black families increased slightly from 22.5% to 26.8%, while chronic food insecurity jumped from 8.9% to 12.8%. Hispanic families saw recurring food insecurity nearly double from 17.2% to 34.3%, and chronic food insecurity more than doubled from 9.0% to 18.7%. 

White Families’ Rising Hunger Crisis


Although lower in comparison, White families experienced a significant rise in chronic food insecurity, which increased nearly six-fold from 0.8% to 4.5% over the two decades.

Levels of Food Insecurity


According to the  U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity encompasses two distinct levels. Low food security, previously known as “food insecurity without hunger,” involves compromised quality, variety, or desirability of diet, but shows little to no signs of reduced food intake.

On the other hand, very low food security, formerly labeled as “food insecurity with hunger,” includes several indications of disrupted eating patterns and a decrease in food intake. 

Why Are More Seniors Facing Food Insecurity?


Cindy Leung, a public health nutrition expert from Harvard, sheds light on this pressing issue in a Washington Times interview. She notes that while food prices are climbing for everyone, seniors with lower incomes are particularly hard-hit. Many of these individuals also bear the burden of additional medical expenses. 

Recent Trends in Food Price Inflation


Despite stable food inflation rates from January to February of this year, there was a 2.2% increase since February 2023, according to recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Limited Relief from Social Security Adjustments


For seniors, whose Social Security cost-of-living adjustments increased by only 3.2% this year, these rising costs provide little relief, as they need to cover food, housing, and healthcare expenses. 

Aging and Vulnerability to Homelessness

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The demographic of seniors is also increasingly vulnerable, with about half of the unhoused population in 2020 aged 50 and over—a stark rise from the early 90s when this age group made up only 11% of the homeless population, as reported in the journal Generations by the American Society on Aging.

Will More Seniors Face Food Insecurity?


The American Society on Aging’s recent research forecasts a troubling rise in food insecurity among older adults, with figures expected to jump from 5.5 million in 2021 to over 7 million by 2050. 

However, there are strategies in place that could mitigate this increase. 

Can SNAP Address Senior Hunger?

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides monthly financial assistance to low-income families and individuals, is seen as a key solution for fostering food security among the elderly. 

Millions of Seniors Missing Out on SNAP


According to the latest USDA data, 5.3 million households with older adults currently benefit from SNAP. Nevertheless, AARP research indicates that many eligible seniors are not utilizing this available aid.

The Underutilized SNAP Benefits

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In fiscal year 2018, a significant portion of eligible older adults did not participate in the SNAP program, with 16 million—or 63 percent—of adults aged 50 and older missing out. This trend was even more pronounced among those 60 and older, who exhibited particularly low participation rates. 

Eligibility vs. Participation in SNAP


Despite most of these eligible nonparticipants being qualified for only the minimum monthly benefit of $15 in 2018, over 3 million could have received more than $200. 

Additionally, those aged 50 and older were more likely than younger eligible nonparticipants to forego potentially substantial SNAP benefits, highlighting a gap in reaching this demographic with essential nutritional support.

Boosting SNAP to Better Support Seniors


The effectiveness of SNAP could be further enhanced, especially in terms of the amount it offers monthly. Although there was a pandemic-related boost in SNAP benefits, this increase concluded in March 2023, resulting in a reduction of $95 to $250 per month.

How Temporary SNAP Increases Helped Seniors


The temporary increase during the pandemic demonstrated how impactful such assistance can be—CBS highlighted that it helped keep 4.2 million Americans out of poverty, underscoring the potential for similar measures to aid seniors specifically.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.