Hungry for Solutions: Aging and Food Insecurity

I’m starved. Ravenous.   I’m so hungry I can’t think straight. I certainly can’t work. What I want more than anything is to eat an entire stack of beef ribs.

Kevin Kemp knows exactly how I feel. At 54 — about my age — he’s been homeless and hungry in Long Beach for nearly a decade.

“It’s like running out of fuel in your car,” says Kemp. “You’re just stuck. It’s no energy. Nothing to help you through the daily activities.”

But there’s one difference between my hunger and Kemp’s story, as recounted by Hunger Action Los Angeles. Mine is self-inflicted — it’s the day of my colonoscopy — and I’ve been fasting for 24 hours to prepare for the procedure. As soon as it’s over, I’ll be eating.

Kemp’s hunger, by contrast, is not voluntary but a daily reality.

While statistics for hungry children typically grab the biggest headlines, the numbers for elder hunger are also surprisingly dire — Feeding America estimates that 9% of seniors live in food insecure households. Of California’s nearly 5 million older adults that translates to anywhere between 326,000 to half a million hungry older adults.

The health problems associated with food insecurity include depression, asthma, heart disease and a host of other stress-related illnesses.

At Sacramento’s River City Food Bank, adults 55 and over are the fastest rising demographic.

“When it kind of hit me in the head was during the financial crash in 2008-2009,” said Eileen Thomas, the food bank’s executive director. Before that, she was serving between 200-250 seniors a month. “Then it was 350, then it was 450, then it was 700. Now it’s 850 seniors a month.”

Responses to today’s escalating elder hunger problem focus on two areas: increasing supplemental income for poor seniors, and new food distribution efforts that treat “food as medicine.”

Today, over 200 organizations representing aging, housing, and disability advocates have joined forces to lobby California legislators for increased cash supplements for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

The state cut its share of this supplemental income – the State Supplementary Payment (SSP) — by $77 per month during the last recession, sending seniors who depend on the aid into a financial spiral that landed them at just 90% of the federal poverty level.

Complicating the issue is that recipients of these payments, along with paired supplements from the federal government — called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI — don’t quality for CalFresh, more popularly known as food stamps, making eating even more elusive.

Today, seniors receive a maximum of $889 per month in supplements — nearly $150 less than if the state had adjusted for inflation since 2008, according to the California Budget & Policy Center.

 “Raising (SSI/SSP) would make a gigantic impact on reducing senior hunger,” says Frank Tamborello, executive director of Hunger Action Los Angeles.

Alex Briscoe, head of Alameda County’s Health Services Agency, realizes his county’s senior hunger problem is getting worse.

“We are projecting a 150% increase in the number of county residents over the age of 65 by 2025,” says Briscoe. “Obviously, poor diet and poor nutrition will exacerbate health care costs at the same time our system will be stretched way beyond its current capacity due to this demographic shift.”

In the past two years, Alameda County has funded two new kitchens for homebound seniors and those eating at congregate meal sites.

Local programs targeting senior hunger are increasingly using healthy foods — food as medicine.

For the past 25 years, Project Angel Food has delivered a daily meal to Los Angeles residents with critical illnesses, including HIV/AIDS to cancer and end stage renal disease.

The Project serves meals made from fresh ingredients to prevent those in poor health from deteriorating further.

In Sacramento, Thomas’s food bank piloted a program with Sutter Health last year to provide healthy food where poor seniors live. The program — introduced at a senior apartment complex that provides dinner only to residents — targeted the missing meals in hopes of improving overall health.

For residents at the low-income Park Place senior housing complex, preparing meals at home is nearly impossible.

“They don’t really have cooking facilities,” says Thomas.

Over six months, food was delivered to the lobby of the HUD-developed site for about 90 older adults. The weekly bag included a variety of food and drinks, with hunger-reducing proteins like meat, nuts, yogurt, and cheese being “by far their favorite,” says Thomas.

Although data on health outcomes for the period is still being assessed, she says there was some clear initial feedback.

“They were much happier,” she says. “They felt the food made a difference in the way they felt.”

Last year, the local Area Agency on Aging serving Sutter County found itself in a dire predicament. They couldn’t find a replacement company to provide meals at its four congregate meal sites serving seniors.

After a national research effort, the organization settled on a unique solution — send seniors to three local restaurants instead.

Each month 35 older adults who formerly ate at a Yuba City senior center now receive a book of up to 12 vouchers worth $8 each.

Before using the vouchers, “a majority of them were just eating fast food,” says Jane Stan, the agency’s nutrition services manager. “Now they’re eating more fruits and vegetables.”

Stan’s colleague Julie Tharalson summarizes the plight of older adults throughout California this way.

“We were shocked at the numbers of senior hunger.”

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