A recent report released by Feeding America found that one in six Kentuckians face some form of food insecurity. For them, not having enough food, cutting portion sizes to make food last longer, or not having money to buy food, is a monthly occurrence.
But by the year 2035, the number of Americans over the age of 60 will surpass the number of Americans under the age of 18 for the first time in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Those two statistics worry Shannon Gadd, commissioner for the Department for Aging and Independent Living.
Without adequate infrastructure to deal with the aging Kentucky population’s needs, many seniors could face the reality of going hungry in their golden years.
Gadd spoke at the 2019 Kentucky Senior Hunger Summit, which brought together community partners from across the state to find real solutions for the problems that could arise in the future, at Buck Run Baptist Church on Wednesday.
According to the study “The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2017," nearly 17% of adults over 60 in Kentucky suffer from food insecurity. The study, co-authored by Dr. James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research, found that nearly 30% of senior citizens across the country living below the poverty line are concerned they won’t have enough to eat on a monthly basis.
Most affected are grandparents taking care of their grandchildren — a condition for which Kentucky leads the country said Adam Meier, secretary for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Other issues such as lack of transportation or resources and embarrassment when it comes to asking for help, oftentimes exacerbate the problem. And in some cases, social isolation only serves to prevent seniors from getting the help they need.
For speaker Enid Borden, Founder and CEO of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, the issue of senior hunger was deeply personal. She told the story of an elderly woman who lost her husband and found it harder to live alone — from relearning how to drive a car to learning how to write a check to learning how to eat alone.
“She said that’s when she felt most lonely. Her children lived far away from her and never fully realized the extent of her emptiness,” Borden said in her keynote speech. “And then it happened. She was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her health was deteriorating, but she told her kids she was doing pretty well. They foolishly, or perhaps hopefully, believed her. But the cancer was non-relenting and her suffering and agony were taking their toll. When her children went to celebrate with her on Thanksgiving, they were in for the surprise of their lives. They had seen only two months prior and were stunned to see this once heavyset woman who had shrunk to 90 pounds.”
The children, Borden said, found the refrigerator practically bare. The woman said she hadn’t eaten in a week because she didn’t have the strength to shop and that she was too proud to ask a neighbor for help. The family of the woman hospitalized her where she was put on an intravenous feeding tube. Unfortunately, Borden said, their efforts were too late, and the woman passed away.
That woman was Borden’s mother.
“Senior hunger is non-discriminatory. We live with these truths every day,” she said. “There is hunger and malnutrition and poverty and disease. But there’s hope and there’s courage and there’s perseverance… There are those who take it upon themselves to make a difference, to change the world… We must take that challenge … time is running out for some of those we serve.”
One of the biggest issues to address, Gadd said, was educating seniors and others about the availability of benefits that are available. From letting seniors know about SNAP and other benefits available to them to letting food bank workers know about Medicare Advantage benefits that cover things like medicines and transportation expenses as they help seniors apply for aid, getting the word out about what services are available for seniors is key to finding solutions for seniors, Gadd said.
“Food banks operate on two truths — that people can get transportation to the food banks and that people can do something with the food when they get help,” Gadd said. “For seniors and the disabled, those two truths are no longer true.”
Finding solutions also means thinking outside of the box. At Owensboro Medical System, managers found that as much as 40% of the food produced by the cafeteria was thrown away. Coming together with the hospital and the Senior Center of Owensboro, the hospital was able to find a way to donate the leftover food to the senior center, which in turn packaged and froze the food before delivering it to seniors in their area. The program makes sure those seniors have food for the weekend or for emergencies that they can prepare in their microwaves.
The program came together in two months, Debbie Johnson, director of community engagement with Owensboro Health, and cost the hospital system no money to start. Since its inception two years ago, the program has provided 11,360 weekend meals to Owensboro seniors, said Dana Peveler, executive director of the Senior Center of Owensboro.
Solutions like that, Gadd said, are things Kentucky can use in order to fight a growing problem.
Other programs discussed included implementing a planned Produce Prescription Plus program initiated by the Fayette County Farmers Market to help seniors get more local produce, incentivizing farmers to donate their imperfect produce to area food banks, and working within state government to make applying for benefits easier.
While one in six seniors face food security, Ziliak’s study found, the real issue was that one in five adults between the ages of 50 and 59 in Kentucky face food insecurity – the highest in the nation.
“A tidal wave is coming,” Ziliak said.
Finding solutions now can increase the state’s chances of helping the coming wave of seniors, he said. And helping seniors have access to food does more than just meet their nutritional needs, he said.
His research showed that food insecure seniors have a 60% greater risk for depression; 20-30% greater risk of a cardiac event and are 50% more likely to report asthmatic symptoms.
“The health consequences are real,” he said. “Feeding people feeds their soul that feeds their mental health that feeds their physical health. We need to make sure we’re doing our job.”
In fact, according to one study, food insecure households spend about 45% more ($6,100) on medical care in a year than people in food-secure households ($4,200).
Gadd said the summit was the first of many steps toward finding new solutions. In the coming months and years, she said, the coalition would bring in more stake holders including seniors, in order to address the problem.