COVID-19 and Food Insecurity Among Seniors

Table of Contents:

  1. What Is Food Insecurity?
  2. Economic and Food Insecurity Among American Seniors
  3. Responding to Food Insecurity During COVID-19
  4. How You Can Help

Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts have taken pains to emphasize that older Americans face an elevated risk of infection, severe symptoms, and death. Businesses, the healthcare infrastructure, and the government have responded with social distancing measures designed to slow the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable seniors.

Even with these measures in place, seniors have accounted for an outsized portion of the country’s more than 300,000 deaths from the virus. The death toll is not merely a reflection of the virulence of COVID-19, but also of the ripple effects it has had on the economy and population. For seniors who were already experiencing economic and food insecurity, COVID-19 has amounted to several crises combined.

What Is Food Insecurity?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), an individual or household is “food insecure” if they lack the financial resources to eat as regularly and as well as necessary. In 2006, they introduced a scale describing the four levels of food security. Households with high food security never experience anxiety about access to food. Marginally secure households feel occasional anxiety about their resources, but it does not substantially affect the quality or variety of the food they eat. Households experiencing low food security see the quality and variety of their meals decrease, but are still able to eat regularly. Finally, at least one member of a household with very low food security will need to update their eating patterns during the year due to a lack of resources.

Even before the pandemic — when food insecurity was at its lowest point since the Great Recession — the Association of American Medical Colleges reports that it still impacted more than 37 million Americans. Estimates from Feeding America, an organization dedicated to fighting hunger, suggests that an additional 17 million people have fallen into food insecurity since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March of 2020.

Economic and Food Insecurity Among American Seniors

Writing for the Brookings Institution in the pandemic’s early weeks, Annelies Goger suggested that the scale of food and economic insecurity among seniors often goes under-reported. While the total number of food insecure Americans was decreasing prior to COVID-19, conditions were actually getting worse for the country’s seniors. “As of 2015,” she wrote, “there were more food insecure older adults in the U.S. than during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath.” The most recent statistics on the subject date from 2018 and found that 5.5 million seniors experienced at least some level of food insecurity during the year.

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Both health and financial concerns increase the senior population’s risk of food insecurity under any circumstances. Mobility issues, for example, may make frequent trips to the grocery store impossible or limit the number of options available. For the millions of seniors subsisting on low or fixed incomes, maintaining a nutritious diet is an everyday struggle that only meal-assistance programs can alleviate.

COVID-19 has exacerbated all of these concerns. More than 80% of seniors have at least one chronic health condition. In addition to saddling them with medical bills, these conditions elevate older Americans’ risks of catching COVID-19 and suffering severe symptoms. Seniors (particularly those with pre-existing conditions like diabetes or heart disease) have been encouraged to exercise particular caution and avoid nearly all trips outside of their homes.

Though businesses have introduced special shopping hours for high-risk customers, the isolation imposed by COVID-19 has undoubtedly led to more food insecurity among seniors. Something that was already difficult or impossible for certain Americans has, in many cases, become literally impossible.

Responding to Food Insecurity During COVID-19

COVID-19 has demanded that meal-assistance organizations like Meals on Wheels and Feeding America adapt considerably. The latter established its COVID-19 Response Fund to more effectively serve hundreds of food banks nationwide. Both organizations have had to make adjustments, introducing new safety measures like drive-through services and contact-free deliveries. Hollie Baker-Lutz, Feeding America’s Director of Equitable Access describes the precautionary measures her organization has introduced, noting, “We are outfitting our volunteers with personal protective equipment and enforcing social distancing.”

For many chapters of Meals on Wheels, the pandemic has meant relying on the services of different types of volunteers than usual. While the program typically attracts volunteers aged 55 and older, they’re now counting on younger, lower-risk people to lend a hand. Speaking to Forbes, New Jersey-based Meals on Wheels director Marianne Kranz thanks college students, hired drivers, and other young volunteers for regularly working overtime throughout the crisis.

How You Can Help

If your health and finances are such that you can afford to help address food insecurity during this crisis, consider donating to organizations like Meals on Wheels and Feeding America or local programs in your area. The ongoing vaccine rollout means that we’ll eventually be able to put COVID-19 behind us, but for now, we can each play a role in slowing the virus’ spread and addressing its impact.