Nationally, twenty-three percent of low-income older adults currently face food insecurity – meaning they lack consistent access to adequate food. This figure is expected to double over the next decade as the number of seniors living in poverty continues to increase. In Los Angeles County, there are over 300,000 low-income seniors who cannot make ends meet. Yet, only a fraction of this population – approximately nineteen percent – receive free food or assistance through existing meal programs.
I was fortunate to participate as a panelist at a senior hunger summit on June 22, hosted by the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging in response to this grave and growing crisis. The summit aimed to educate the community on how to act as fighting senior hunger oftentimes feels overwhelming and insurmountable. My fellow panelists and I, as well as the keynote speaker, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, spoke to how senior hunger does not exist as an isolated problem. Rather, it exists as a consequence or symptom of senior poverty. While no senior is immune to food insecurity, it is most pervasive among seniors living in poverty. Here are five points from the summit that I find useful in understanding the interconnectedness of senior hunger and other challenges facing low-income older adults:
1. We must deliver meals AND innovative solutions. It was inspiring to hear the number of meals Sister Alice Marie Quinn and her staff deliver for St. Vincent Meals on Wheels – over 4,000 a day! Yet, she recognized how they only reach a small portion of those in need. The Older Americans Act (OAA), which is the predominant source of funding for food and other programs serving seniors, continues to decrease despite the increase in need. Reauthorization of the OAA is a fundamental measure needed in the fight against senior poverty and hunger. As proposed by Gene Etheridge of Etheridge Farms, creative solutions to affordably deliver fresh produce from farm to market are equally as crucial. Another program, Market Match, described by Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, offers low-income individuals matching dollars to buy produce at famers’ markets. But senior hunger cannot be solved through food programs alone.
2. The FPL leaves out some seniors who are struggling to make ends meet. Dr. Steven Wallace with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, explained that eligibility for food and other poverty programs is based on the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) – a measure of poverty that he maintained is outdated, does not take into consideration regional costs of living, and fails to account for expenses that are unique to older adults. By using the FPL, we fail to accurately and adequately capture the number of seniors who struggle to make ends meet, and we deny seniors access to critical programs and benefits that would help raise this population out of poverty. This plays out in a number of ways, from limiting assistance with health care expenses to denying food stamp assistance to individuals with incomes thirty percent over the FPL (just $1,265 a month).
3. Food security trickles down from economic security. Speaking to economic factors of senior hunger, I focused in my remarks on how increasing the amount of income seniors receive or are able to accumulate is essential in combating senior hunger. For example, the passage of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Restoration Act would allow seniors on SSI to receive up to $112 monthly from other sources without losing any SSI benefits (currently they can only receive $20.00). The Act would also allow individuals to save up to $10,000 (currently it is $2,000). Similarly, cuts to California’s State Supplement Payment (SSP) means that seniors today on SSI in California receive less in benefits than they did in 2009 despite annual increases in the cost of living over the past six years.
4. When a senior is faced with paying for a prescription drug versus having food for the day, we begin to see the complexity of decisions seniors living in poverty face. Dr. Kaiser with the Motion Picture & Television Fund described how seniors who are food insecure experience worse health outcomes. They suffer higher percentages of diabetes, depression, and limitations in activities of daily living. Emergency room visits skyrocket at the end of the month when seniors run out of food and they cannot afford the refill of their diabetes medications. Dr. Fielding, a professor with Public Health and Pediatrics at UCLA, emphasized the need for us to stress how ignoring senior poverty costs the health care system billions of dollars in preventable expenses.
5. We can’t address senior hunger without addressing senior poverty. I think of senior hunger within the greater web of senior poverty along with worse health outcomes, poor housing conditions, and isolation. As was made clear at the summit, solutions and advocacy must address what all poor seniors need – food assistance, income support, affordable housing, and supportive services so that all seniors can age in dignity.