University of Kentucky faculty member James Ziliak’s research on senior hunger was recently featured in The Washington Post. The article discusses recent trends in food insecurity for people over 60.
The study report finds that rates of food insecurity have remained persistently high following the Great Recession, and that the economic recovery's effects seem to be the weakest for older Americans. "There was no significant decline in seniors 'facing hunger,'" Ziliak said. "This rate has been stubbornly stuck."
The report, co-authored by Ziliak, Gatton College of Business and Economics Endowed Chair in Microeconomics and director of the Center for Poverty Research, and University of Illinois agricultural economist Craig Gundersen was commissioned by Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH) and is titled, "The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2015." Ziliak also serves as executive director of the UK-based Kentucky Federal Statistical Research Data Center.
The study shows that 5.4 million seniors age 60 or older (8.1 percent) were food insecure in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Food insecurity refers to the lack of access to enough nutritious food. An additional 4.4 million seniors (6.6 percent) reported marginal food security, a status that is less severe but one that can be problematic, especially later in life when good nutrition is essential for well-being.
Combined, the 14.7 percent of seniors in total who faced the threat of hunger in 2015 does represent a slight decrease over the prior year, and the first decline since 2009. Despite relative improvement, the rate and number of seniors affected remains well above pre-recession levels. In late 2007 when the Great Recession began, 6.3 percent and 3.2 million seniors were food insecure — 2.2 million fewer than the most recently reported total of food insecure seniors. These findings are further evidence that the benefits of the improved economy are not being enjoyed by all.
“The number of seniors facing hunger in this country remains unacceptably high. After lifetimes of hard work many of America’s seniors are put in the terrible of position of having to choose between groceries and medical care,” said Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv. “These are parents, grandparents and cherished friends and we must ensure they have the nutritious food they need. Feeding America is working to prevent their hunger every day.”
“While a reduction in the percent of our nation’s seniors who sometimes find themselves lacking access to nutritious food is good news, it is not good enough,” said Enid Borden, NFESH founder and CEO. “After six successive years of increases, NFESH is delighted to see an end to that upward trend. But we certainly cannot say it heralds the end of the problem.” Borden added, “While the overall national percentage dropped, the same is not true for all states. In fact, many states saw increases in the percent of seniors threatened by hunger. We have much more work to do.”
This latest report documents the characteristics of seniors who struggle to meet their nutritional needs. Specifically, in 2015, researchers found:
Seniors who are racial or ethnic minorities, low-income or younger vs. older (age 60-69 vs. age 80+) were most likely to be affected by some level of food insecurity.
Seniors who reported a disability were disproportionately affected, with 25 percent reporting food insecurity and an additional 13 percent reporting marginal food security.
Senior food insecurity rates vary by state, ranging from 2.9% in North Dakota to 15.6% in Louisiana. When seniors who experience marginal food security are included, total rates vary from 6.1% in North Dakota to 24.3% in Mississippi. Seniors living in the South are more likely to experience food insecurity than seniors living in other parts of the country.
Food insecurity adversely affects a person’s health, and the implications can be particularly problematic for seniors. Compared to food-secure seniors, food-insecure seniors consume fewer calories and lower quantities of key nutrients, and are more likely to experience negative health conditions, including depression, asthma and chest pain.
In examining the extent of the threat of hunger nationally among seniors in 2015, the report also provides the rates of senior hunger in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.