February 16, 2024

My Hunger to End Hunger

As we move further into the New Year and the holidays fade into the distance, I always get a mixed feeling of gratitude and wistfulness. I’m grateful that my family made it through the last year relatively unscathed, but I can’t help thinking about people who may have gotten a temporary reprieve through the donated food, clothing, and other traditional largesse we offer to “the neediest.”

But where are they now? Don’t these folks get hungry year-round, not just at year-end? I think about these questions a lot these days because I walk our family dog every morning past a parking lot where I see an elderly woman sitting in her car with a small dog, surrounded by stuff, the engine running to keep warm. She’s 73.

She’s alone and homeless, because she lost her job during the pandemic, then lost her apartment. I know this because a fellow dog-walker stopped by to offer her food one day and told me her story. It’s troubling to see a person—whether a child or a senior— in this situation, especially because I live in the 9th wealthiest county in our nation.

For me, it’s also heartbreaking to see someone exactly my age, having gone through life’s many challenges, still struggling to survive, not knowing where their next meal will come from. And while I realize that hunger and poverty are massively complex issues, I can’t believe that we can’t make bigger strides in fixing what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecurity,” defined by a person or community that lacks regular access to safe, plentiful, and nutritious food for a healthy life.

One thing that’s surprised me as I’ve explored this subject is just how big and multigenerational the problem of food insecurity is. Overall, for 38.3 million Americans—more than 10% of the U.S. population—this uncertainty is a reality of daily life. (Just imagine the entire state of California not knowing where their next meal will come from.)

About 30% of the food insecure population is composed of children, according to the USDA. At the same time, almost 17% of adults age 50 and older are food insecure, according to a report released last year, “The State of Senior Hunger in America,” by Feeding America, the largest charity working to end hunger in the U.S.

In 2021, (the latest data available), 1 in 11 adults age 50 to 59 were food insecure and 1 in 14 seniors (adults age 60 and older) were food insecure. Every state is home to seniors and older adults who experience food insecurity, with the highest rate for seniors in Louisiana (13.4%) and the highest rate for older adults in Arkansas (19.8%). Not surprisingly, communities of color experience disproportionate levels of food insecurity, up to four times as high.
Of course, everyone deserves to eat healthy meals. But older adults often face unique challenges that put them as higher risk for food insecurity:

They’re more likely to have chronic health conditions that make cooking and grocery shopping difficult. Many don’t have access to transportation, making it more difficult to get to grocery stores or food pantries. They often have limited income, making it difficult to afford food and other expenses.

Seniors who live alone may not have family or caregivers who can help them with
grocery shopping and cooking. Seniors who live with their grandchildren are more likely to have trouble purchasing food for their entire family on a limited income. Food insecurity has negative effects for individuals across the age spectrum. For aging adults, these effects can be particularly problematic, making them more likely to have chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes as well as experience mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

So, what can we do to address this massive issue? Well, hunger is driven by complicated and interrelated economic and social factors, like insufficient wages, lack of affordable housing, inadequate health care, and systemic discrimination. No easy solutions.

Certainly, we can continue to advocate for federal nutrition programs, increasing benefit amounts. But such programs alone cannot solve this problem, especially given our divisive political environment in Washington. The best way to make a difference, I believe, is to support the current work of national nonprofits, such as WhyHunger (https://whyhunger.org/) and Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org).

They work on policies and innovative programs to reduce unnecessary food waste in our society; increase education and knowledge about food insecurity; diversify efficient local food sources through endeavors like community gardens and urban agriculture. And they partner with a host of local groups and programs across the country.

There are several dynamic and dedicated organizations where I live, including Long
Island Cares—the Harry Chapin Food Bank (https://www.licares.org/) and
Island Harvest Food Bank (https://www.islandharvest.org/), and you can find food banks wherever you live through locators on the Feeding America and WhyHunger websites.

One more thing. We can make monthly donations to these organizations. Hopefully, that will stem my ambivalent February feelings over food insecurity, starting with my age cohort, the 5 million food insecure seniors nationwide. We have enough insecurity in the world these days.
Let’s start fixing this one.

—Ron Roel

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