Kentucky has the nation’s highest rate of food insecurity among residents 50 to 59 years old, according to Feeding America’s first-time effort to document hunger in older adults.
Nearly 19 percent of the state’s older adults are food insecure, and another 9 percent are “very low food secure.” The national rates were 11 and 5 percent, respectively.
“It’s alarming. Unlike in the rest of the country, where it’s been getting better with people ages 50 to 59, we’ve been getting worse,” said Tamara Sandberg, Feeding Kentucky executive director.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as diets with “reduced quality, variety or desirability” but limited evidence of reduced food intake. Very low food security indicates disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Though people picturing hunger might imagine kids with visible ribs, the image of hunger in the U.S. is diverse – but more often it’s someone overweight or obese, as food insecurity represents a lack of nutrients, not calories. It’s called the hunger-obesity paradox.
“If you’re trying to stretch your family’s budget and get them fed, you’re going to do what you need to do, oftentimes with inexpensive food that is purely carbohydrates,” said Martin Stone, a professor of horticulture at Western Kentucky University and co-founder of the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green.
This is evident in food bank-utilizing households, who report buying inexpensive, unhealthy food as a coping mechanism, according to Sandberg.
Other factors might include social stress, metabolic factors – research suggests animals with threatened food supplies store more fat – and food deserts or food swamps, which are areas flooded with stores selling unhealthy food.
In Bowling Green, grocery stores are available on patches of Scottsville Road, Nashville Road and downtown. But there are neighborhoods situated miles away from grocery stores, which presents challenges for people without vehicles or access to safe pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.
Instead, small markets such as Dollar General capture food dollars while providing limited fruits or vegetables – usually not much beyond bananas or apples.
“We need to have fresh fruits and vegetables in those areas of town,” Stone said. “Plants provide cancer-fighting agents. They help our digestive system function properly. It’s really well known that eating a diet rich in vegetables is really good for you.”
Fresh vegetables retain the most nutrition. But for people picking out food at an area food pantry, that can be a challenge. If produce is offered, it’s often the produce that wouldn’t be able to be sold at markets because of over-ripeness.
When people don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables, this can lead to significant health consequences.
Nutritional deficiencies contribute to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, depression, and certain cancers – and, eventually, higher healthcare costs.
“There is a strong relationship between hunger and health,” Sandberg said.
‘State of Senior Hunger’
Feeding America’s annual “State of Senior Hunger” report said nearly 8 percent of seniors across the nation are food insecure and 3 percent are very low food secure. For food insecurity, rates ranged from about 12 percent in Louisiana to less than 3 percent in Minnesota. For very low food secure seniors, rates ranged from 0.7 percent in Colorado to 5.4 percent in Rhode Island.
In Kentucky, 8.4 percent of seniors were food insecure and 2.6 percent were very low food secure in 2017, the report said.
“Our rate of food insecurity in seniors is better than last year. We’re no longer in the top 10,” Sandberg said.
In the report, food insecurity was highest among racial or ethnic minorities, people with lower incomes and people who rent homes.
It’s unclear why Kentucky seniors ranked close to the national average for food insecurity, while adults in their 50s had the highest rates.
“We know that we just need more research,” Sandberg said.
Since people in their 50s face some of the highest rates of food insecurity among any adult populations, this research could prove important for the future generation of seniors.
The imaginary line between people in their 50s and the 60-plus is clear when it comes to accessing services – which many seniors are not. For example, a third of Kentucky’s senior citizens eligible for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, are accessing benefits, lower than the national average of 42 percent, according to a National Council on Aging study.
But the older adult population is often left out of social services due to age cutoffs. That’s a benefit of food pantries, which only require proof of residence, according to Monica Ruehling, the marketing and communication coordinator for the Elizabethtown-based regional food bank, Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland.
“People think they’re out there by themselves, and they’re not,” Ruehling said.
In addition to food pantries, Bowling Green offers food assistance through the year-round, biweekly Community Farmers Market, which offers fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, coffee and wine.
“It’s not anything you want, but you could do your grocery shopping weekly at the Community Farmers Market and be satisfied,” said Stone, who contributes blueberries, flowers, paw paw fruit, figs and elderberries to the market.
The market offers “double dollars,” which allows students, SNAP or other voucher holders to match up to $20 on food purchases. For example, if someone picks out $10 of produce, they’ll receive $10 in credit. (In 2018, the market recorded $14,000 in SNAP benefits.)
“It costs the market some money, but we feel that it’s worth it to support students and seniors. They don’t always have access to fresh, healthy food, and we want to extend their dollar as much as we can,” Stone said.
– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggersdailynews or visit bgdaily news.com.