Food Insecurity in the Elderly: Problems and Solutions

Food insecurity has always been a very real threat in the lives of millions of Americans. Following the events of early 2020 and the chaos that ensued, it became even more of a problem, and seniors have been hit the hardest.

Food Insecurity and Seniors

Food is a basic human need and right, yet over 800 million people worldwide (roughly 10.5% of the global population) are undernourished. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, millions struggle to get the most basic sustenance.

Several years ago, as much as 13.6% of the senior population was suffering from food insecurity, which is defined as being without access to a sufficient amount of nutritious food. The problem is getting worse, not only were these figures higher than the rates recorded at the turn of the millennium, but we’ve also seen them rise sharply in 2020.

Being a senior is one of the risk factors associated with food insecurity, but the risk is also greater for people in the following groups:

  • Disabled: Over 30% of all seniors with food insecurity are registered as disabled.
  • Younger Seniors: Rather counterintuitively, young seniors, particularly those aged between 60 and 69, are more likely to face food insecurity than their older counterparts.
  • Southern Residents: Of the top 10 states with the highest rates of food insecurity, 9 are in the south, including Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama. 
  • Dependents: Seniors with young dependents, such as those left caring for a grandchild, have more mouths to feed and less food leftover.

Since 2005, the elderly population has increased substantially, but the number of meal delivery recipients has declined. For every senior who gets a regular meal delivery, there are several who are forced to go hungry or worry about where their next meal will come from.

Problems with Elderly Food Insecurity

A younger person can survive on a relatively restricted diet. They have more mobility, fewer health conditions to worry about, and while malnutrition is never good, they can generally afford to miss a few meals. 

The same can’t be said for elderly people, however. They are frailer, have more health concerns, and need to keep their energy levels as high as possible.

An individual suffering from food insecurity may feel embarrassed about not being able to feed themselves or their loved ones. They want to live independently and to show others that they are surviving on their own terms. 

As a result, they may lie about their problems when speaking with their loved ones, and if they don’t know a problem exists, they can’t find a solution.

Getting Help When You are Hungry

There is no quick fix when it comes to food insecurity and we don’t want to undermine anyone who is struggling with this difficult issue. At the same time, there are a few considerations that could help you, including:

  • Grow Your Own: If you have space in your yard, and the time and means to maintain it, consider growing your own food. Estimates suggest that the average American garden can produce over $700 in food from an initial investment of around $230. Focus on high-yield crops that give you regular access to fresh and seasonal food.
  • Use Federal and State Programs: While federal programs have strict requirements and many people slip through the cracks, there are also local community programs that can help. 
  • Change Your Diet: Forget about fast food, stop buying takeout, and focus more on cheap and filling meals. A few tins of beans combined with a simple starch or grain can cook several meals and provide you with a healthy balance of protein, carbs, fat, and fiber. Eat more frozen and tinned vegetables, limit your consumption of meat, and add plenty of beans, legumes, lentils, and grains to your diet.
  • Buy Non-Perishables in Bulk: Having a regular supply of frozen foods, as well as tinned and dried ingredients, will allow you to cook filling meals when you need them. If you buy these ingredients in bulk from wholesalers, you can save yourself even more money and bring those meals to less than $1 per portion.
  • Freeze Your Meals: A lot of the food that gets thrown away is already cooked. Most Americans cook more than they need, and the leftovers are stuffed into the fridge for a day or two and then forgotten about. Instead of reducing your portions, increase them and freeze the leftovers for later. 
  • Swallow Your Pride: Forget about your pride—there’s nothing shameful in asking for help when you need it. This is especially true if you have children, grandchildren, or a sick spouse to care for. Surviving in this world is about making do with what you have and taking what you’re offered.

Cheap Meals to Stretch Your Budget

For some seniors, cooking big and cheap meals isn’t an option. Their mobility problems hold them back, they become reliant on fast food and TV dinners, and as the costs spiral their nutrition levels plummet.

That said, for able-bodied seniors and caregivers, the following meals are filling, cheap, and relatively easy to prepare:

  • Oatmeal with fresh or dried fruit
  • Grilled cheese and tomato or mushroom soup
  • Spaghetti with marinara
  • Lentil and bean stew
  • Chili with beef and beans 
  • Mac n’ cheese
  • Pasta with chickpeas 
  • Peanut butter sandwiches
  • Ratatouille
  • Scrambled eggs and bacon on toast

How to Help with Food Insecurity in your Community

If you’re worried that an elderly parent isn’t getting enough sustenance, asking them may not be enough. As noted above, there is a certain degree of shame where food insecurity is concerned, and they may hide their problems from their loved ones.

Try speaking with them candidly. Let them know there is nothing to be ashamed of if they’re struggling, and if that doesn’t work, offer to make them meals or do the occasional grocery shop trip for them.

The problems don’t end with your loved one, however. Food insecurity is a problem across all the United States and if you live in an area with high unemployment and poverty, it’s something that will be happening on your doorstep. 

If you have enough time and money not to worry about your own nutrition, consider giving a little back to the community in the following ways:

Donate Food to a Food Bank

While millions of Americans are at risk of hunger, the majority waste vast amounts of food every single year. In fact, estimates suggest that as much as 40% of the food we buy is thrown away. If you have food you’re not going to eat, including tins that are gathering dust in the pantry, consider donating them to your local food bank.

Tins and packets can last for years and offer a nutritious way for an individual or family to feed themselves. It doesn’t matter how basic it is or how much you have, every little bit helps.

Donate Food Directly

If you know someone in your area who might be struggling, donate food to them directly or cook meals for them. They may be too proud, but they won’t refuse a homecooked meal, so if you suspect that they have an issue, take the initiative.

Donate Your Time

Food banks need people to help out every now and then. Someone has to pick up the food and give it to people in need, so when you have a little time to spare in your schedule, consider helping out. 

Alternatively, spend your time doing grocery shopping for elderly neighbors who have limited mobility and no transportation.