Sunday Seniors: Food insecurity hits seniors especially hard in the Upper Valley

Valley News Calendar Editor
Monday, June 24, 2019

Food insecurity affects people of all ages in rural and metropolitan regions of the United States.

This true for the Twin States, as evidenced in “The State of Senior Hunger in America 2017,” a report released last month by the nonprofit organization Feeding America. While Vermont’s rate of 5.4% and New Hampshire’s rate of 5.8% put the two states below the national average of 7.7%, senior food insecurity is still a concern among nonprofit organizations that serve the Upper Valley.

“We know that in the next 10 years the population of older people in Vermont is going to go up faster than in other parts of the country,” Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles said. Of the 153,000 people the Foodbank serves, about 26,000 are senior citizens.

Minnesota reported the lowest food insecurity rate at 2.8%, according to an executive summary of the report, while Louisiana had the highest at 12.3%. Regionally, the Northeast has the lowest rate at 6%, followed by the West (7.2%) and the Midwest (7.3%). The South holds the highest rate of 9.2%.

“The rate of food insecurity among seniors is lower in recent years but remains significantly higher than it was in 2007,” the summary of the report states. “The current number of seniors who are food insecure is more than double what it was in 2001.”

What’s more, there is a discrepancy among seniors living in a metropolitan area versus a rural region such as the Upper Valley.

“You look at rural and it’s even worse,” said Michael Redmond, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven. “There are large percentages of seniors who are food-insecure or have low food security.”

Last year, the Haven served 4,300 different households made up of over 12,000 people. About 34% were age 65 and older.

“That is an indicator of some level of the effect of poverty in aging,” Redmond said.

This is a concern that Sayles shares.

“We hear stories about people basically retiring into poverty, moving to a lower fixed income,” he said.

Aging often comes with higher health care costs, and senior citizens will look for ways they can save money. While costs such as rent and heat may be locked in, food costs can appear to be more flexible.

“We have a lot of concern about food being that fungible part of the budget,” Sayles said.

Angele Zhang, program services director of Listen Community Services, said about a third of people who use the nonprofit organization’s food pantry are senior citizens.

“Our community dinners, a lot of the folks there are seniors,” Zhang said. “Most of them are on really fixed incomes. Groceries are probably one of the first places they’ll cut back.”

But cutting back on nutritional food “can cause or exacerbate health problems,” Redmond said, which puts senior citizens in a difficult spot. That’s particularly true for seniors who are on heart-healthy diets or coping with a disease like diabetes.

“The kinds of food that they may need are more expensive,” Zhang said.

Food insecurity can be an indicator of larger problems.

“I tend to view food insecurity as the tip of the iceberg,” Zhang said. “It’s the first symptom that a family’s resources are stretched or tight.”

Fortunately, there is a lot of help available to senior citizens who are in need. In addition to food pantries at Listen and the Haven, the Vermont Foodbank’s VeggieVanGo program brings fresh produce to medical centers in the region including the White River Junction VA Medical Center, Springfield (Vt.) Medical Care Systems, Gifford Medical Center and Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center. Willing Hands, an Upper Valley-based nonprofit organization, picks up and redistributes produce throughout the region. Upper Valley senior centers and organizations host congregant meals and oversee Meals on Wheels distribution. There are also government programs such as 3 Squares Vermont, but those tend to come with strict income requirements.

“A lot of the older folks will say, ‘Well, I’m getting by,’ or, ‘I don’t want to take it away from anyone else,’ ” Sayles said. “The people that are coming into the older adult category, people who are turning 60 or 65, are more likely to reach out. Some of the older folks are less likely and feel less comfortable reaching out.”

Food insecurity can be compounded by issues like isolation, limited access to transportation, lack of affordable housing and rising health care costs.

“There’s just so much competition for people’s attention these days, and it’s really hard to break through all the ways people can connect through social media and other kinds of media, and as always, I think our older neighbors sometimes get overlooked,” Sayles said.

Editor’s note: There are many resources for senior citizens experiencing food insecurity, including Upper Valley senior centers and social service agencies. Nonprofit organizations such as the Vermont Foodbank (vtfoodbank.org or 1-800-585-2265), Listen Community Services (listencs.org or 603-448-4553) and the Upper Valley Haven (uppervalleyhaven.org or 802-295-6500) are a good place to start and can help connect senior citizens with other services. The full report “The State of Senior Hunger in America 2017,” can be found at feedingamerica.org. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.