Although many people are aging healthily and have access to nutritious food, according to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture, nine percent of households with people 65 and older experience food insecurity. Food insecurity and malnutrition carry serious health implications for older adults, like depression, asthma and congestive heart failure. Some communities also face these challenges at higher rates: according to a recent report through the AARP Foundation, rates of food insecurity for adults 60 and older are twice as high for Blacks and Hispanics than for Whites. While older adults may be eligible for federal food subsides like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, neither entirely solve the hunger issue or ensure that the food that is available is nutritious.
I recently attended a meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, organized by the Orange County Department on Aging (OCDOA) and local faith-based organizations. The meeting focused on how faith-based communities can become central locations for older adults to obtain healthy foods. Congregations are well-positioned to assume this role because they already provide built-in support systems and social networks, and older adults often make a trip to their place of worship, even if it's the only time they leave their home all week. This meeting was just one step in the community's effort to reduce hunger among older adults, and this type of advocacy can be adapted to and replicated in many types of communities.
At the meeting, OCDOA introduced a local printed guide that covers how to obtain, cook, eat and pay for food. It lists local grocery stores that have senior discounts, nearby farmers’ markets, senior centers and shares nutrition tips. The meeting's panelists included nutritionists, OCDOA's Transportation Specialist, OCDOA's older adult volunteers and representatives from churches and the local Meals on Wheels chapter. They discussed how the changes in our bodies, minds and environments as we age can make it difficult to access, cook and eat food, especially healthy and fresh food. The following challenges and inconveniences can increase the risk of food insecurity for older adults:
Speakers also discussed tangible ways for faith-based organizations to connect older adults to healthy foods including:
If our communities create systems that support older adults, then our families, friends and neighbors will have more opportunities to age healthily. If you are interested in organizing to fight hunger among older adults within your community, think about developing a local guide of resources, benefits and payment processes. Talk to local organizations that older adults frequently visit to find ways to partner and create a plan. Invite other organizations to join the conversation. Most importantly, include older adults in the decision-making process so that the community's mobilization reflects the needs and wants of the people it seeks to impact.