n the United States, 4.9 million seniors were food insecure in 2016. Seniors who experience food insecurity can face challenges in securing and preparing nutritious food to maintain a healthy life, including low access to food, reduced quality and variety in their diet, and disrupted food intake.
Feeding America recently partnered with researchers at the University of South Carolina to better understand the experiences of seniors who receive charitable food assistance through a comprehensive evaluation study where we heard from nearly 150 seniors. We found that although seniors emphasized the importance of access to fresh, nutritious foods for maintaining their health, they were sometimes unable to cook these items. Seniors also expressed difficulties accessing affordable grocery options.
Chronic diseases were concerning to many participants, and one in three seniors reported living with diabetes. Health challenges can cause or worsen mobility limitations, making it difficult to transport or cook food. Many of the seniors we heard from struggled to move the heavy boxes distributed through their local food pantries. Others discussed an inability to cook because of chronic limitations. One senior commented:
“I don’t have a whole lot of feelings in my hands, anymore. And I get real tired-like, short of breath. I’m on dialysis, got my leg amputated. So I got a whole lot going on… And sometimes trying to prepare a meal is very hard for me. You know? So with the Meals on Wheels, all I got to do is put it in the microwave, and I got a meal.”
Beyond chronic disease, seniors discussed facing isolation. Some live far from family or have lost a spouse, and many lack reliable transportation. Another senior expressed:
“… I live alone. All my babies, my children, my grandchildren, everybody’s in New York, so I am totally dependent on neighbors and friends to help me out, to have a support system. […] Now, there’s no one here to supervise me or to be there for me […] there’s so much I am doing by myself. I’m told I’m a strong woman. I’m this. I’m that. I’m not anything. I’m just trying to survive.”
A client receives assistance from a local food distribution.
When seniors have small social circles or few social interactions, they experience isolation, which can have serious negative health consequences. Though feelings of loneliness are part of isolation, this concept is a broader measure of the number of social ties and interactions a person has.
These themes represent a small portion of what we learned from the seniors we interviewed about challenges they face in maintaining a stable diet. We will continue to seek new insights to better serve seniors, including embarking on the newest iteration of the State of Senior Hunger report, coming in Spring 2019.
Read more about our efforts to address food insecurity, other areas of research, and how to get involved at FeedingAmerica.org.
Lydia Preuss is the Graduate Research Intern at Feeding America.