Food insecurity is affecting a significant number of seniors, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. A recently released report found 12% of Missouri seniors did not have consistent access to food in 2015.
Close to 170,000 older Missourians — or 1 in 8 of the state’s seniors — suffer from food insecurity. That’s when a person can’t safely access healthy food due to cost, lack of transportation or other factors. With seniors in already-vulnerable health, a lack of healthy food can cause new health conditions and make existing ones such as high blood pressure or diabetes more serious.
For people of all ages, the cost of food can be a barrier to accessing healthy nutrition. But seniors have to overcome additional hurdles to find groceries. Many are on fixed incomes and reliant on friends or relatives to drive them to the supermarket. Seniors often have health problems that can require expensive medications, the report notes.
“If income isn’t a barrier, you can still experience barriers due to a disabling condition, loss of the ability to drive, loss of a social network or family network,” said Michael Brewer, bureau chief for senior programs for the state health department’s Division of Senior and Disability Services.
Even when seniors have food in their homes, it can be difficult for them to prepare, he said.
“One of the most vulnerable times for food insecurity is post-hospitalizations during recuperation period, when a person can’t get their meals or can’t prepare their meals,” he said.
Seniors who are on fixed incomes such as social security or pension benefits may be forced to make trade-offs, said Monica Palmer, communications manager for the food-distribution network Feeding Missouri.
“Their doctor says, 'You really need this new medication and it will make your pain go away,' they have to make that choice between making that pain go away or eating that month,” Palmer said.
There are several nutritional-assistance programs in place to help seniors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program delivers boxes of food to seniors. The St. Louis Area Food Bank delivers nearly 13,000 of those boxes each month to residents of 26 counties in the St. Louis and Metro East region, spokesman Ryan Farmer said.
Many seniors are also eligible for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. However, only 42% of eligible seniors nationwide receive SNAP assistance, according to research from Meals on Wheels.
“Many of our seniors are of the generation that is, ‘I can do without; that program is for someone else,’” Brewer said. “People are afraid of being stigmatized for accessing a public assistance program.”
Savings limits for SNAP can also deter seniors, said Palmer and Farmer. To receive those benefits, seniors can’t have more than $3,500 in liquid assets.
Brewer said that several seniors don’t realize many assets, such as a house or educational savings, aren’t included when calculating those limits.
The state’s health department has started to work harder to recruit seniors to food-assistance programs, Brewer said. Employees from state-designated area agencies on aging are now being certified to be benefits counselors who can help people navigate the benefits sign-up process, he said. The state has also been working on educating seniors in rural communities about the “senior box” and SNAP programs, he said.
Area food banks also are encouraging doctors to screen for a lack of food access during check-ups, said Monica Palmer of Feeding Missouri.
Those efforts are one of the reasons the rate of food-insecure seniors in the state is going down, said Brewer. In 2015, the state’s rate of seniors who didn’t have regular food access was below the national average for the first time.
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