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What Is ‘Food Insecurity’?

“The pandemic has exacerbated existing trends in food insecurity,” Cindy Leung, ScD, MPH, assistant professor of public health nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, said in an email. “People who were already experiencing food insecurity found themselves at more severe levels, and other people were experiencing food insecurity for the first time. Older adults were no exception, on top of a higher risk of COVID-related disease burden and hospitalizations.”

MedPage Today’s recent article entitled “Food Insecurity Among Older Adults Remains a Problem” explains that food insecurity, which is defined as a lack of access to a sufficient amount of nutritious foods, was an issue in the U.S. even before the pandemic started.

Leung and her then-colleagues at the University of Michigan conducted a survey of about 2,000 older adults in 2020 that found that 14% of those ages 50-80 had experienced food insecurity in 2019. This appeared to be connected to worse physical and mental health, the researchers reported.

“Nearly half of adults aged 50-80 who were food insecure rated their physical health as fair or poor (45%), compared to 14% of those who were food secure,” while “almost a quarter of those who were food insecure reported fair or poor mental health (24%) compared to 5% of those who were food secure.”

The researchers also found that about 54% of food-insecure respondents had multiple (two or more) chronic conditions, compared to 41% of food-secure individuals. Food-insecure individuals were more likely than food-secure individuals to report having these conditions than food-secure respondents:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Chronic pain; diabetes
  • Kidney disease; or
  • A sleep disorder.

There were no significant differences in cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease by food security status, however, they noted.

“Food insecurity is actually a really big problem among older adults,” Nicole Heckman, vice president of benefits access at the AARP Foundation, said in a phone interview at which a press person was present. “Nearly 9.5 million adults ages 50 and older are food insecure.”

Heckman gave several reasons for the problem. “One is obviously a lack of income,” she said. “Those that are at or below the poverty line struggle to afford the food they need, especially when we think about the inflation and just the crazy food prices and how much they have gone up over the last 2 years.”

The federal government addressed the general issue of food insecurity during the pandemic in part by expanding access to food programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as expanding the dollar value of available benefits. However, Heckman said, “many older adults aren’t actually aware of the programs and benefits to help them put food on their table. Research shows there are over three million older adults that missed out on more than $200 a month in SNAP benefits” during the pandemic.

Reference: MedPage Today (Jan. 10, 2023) “Food Insecurity Among Older Adults Remains a Problem”

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