University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: News

Craig Gundersen, expert on food insecurity

6/5/2014  8:00 am

Although the United States is considered a rich nation, hunger remains a serious problem, with as many as one in six people suffering from food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Senior citizens are particularly hard hit, with a recent study by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger showing 4.8 million Americans over the age of 60 facing the threat of hunger. Craig Gundersen, the University of Illinois Soybean Industry Endowed Professor of Agricultural Strategy, spoke with News Bureau intern Chelsey B. Coombs about how to solve food insecurity in older adults.

What is food insecurity, and what are its detrimental side effects?

image of professor craig gundersenFood insecurity occurs when there isn’t enough food to eat in a household for at least one of its household members within the previous year. It’s a tragedy that children are going to bed without enough food and seniors don’t know where their next meal is coming from. There are also a lot of negative health and other outcomes associated with food insecurity. It depends upon the population we’re looking at, but we see that nutrient intakes among seniors who are food insecure are substantially lower than those seniors who are food secure. We also see that seniors who are food insecure are more likely to suffer from depression, heart attacks, congestive heart failure and asthma than seniors who are food secure.

What factors contribute to older Americans facing the threat of hunger? Is there a greater threat to them than to other groups?

Overall, the determinants of food insecurity among seniors are similar to other populations. Seniors with lower incomes are more likely to be food insecure, and seniors who never married or are divorced are more likely to be food insecure than seniors who are married or widowed. African-American and Hispanic seniors are also more likely to be food insecure, and this is broadly consistent with what we see among children and nonsenior adults. Finally, seniors who live in homes with a grandchild present are more likely to be food insecure. In 2012, nearly one in every five seniors living with grandchildren was food insecure.

Do programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help with this situation?

SNAP is a key component of the social safety net to address hunger in the United States. It the largest food assistance program in the U.S. and it’s a program that people of all ages are potentially eligible for, from babies up to seniors. One of the challenges that SNAP faces is that participation rates among eligible seniors are lower than they are for other subpopulations. One of the goals of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, which administers SNAP, is to increase participation in the program. There are many reasons why participation rates are lower for seniors. Older seniors may be less familiar with the program because some of these seniors did not grow up with SNAP. SNAP is 50 years old, so those who are 70 or older may not know much about the program. Another reason is that for a lot of seniors, they perceive more of a stigma associated with it. Other seniors are under the impression that if they get benefits, somebody else won’t get benefits. But in reality, that’s not true; it’s an entitlement program, so as many people that need it can participate in the program. It’s great that most seniors have a guaranteed minimum income through programs like Social Security and supplemental security income. However, because of these other benefits, their SNAP benefits can be quite small.

What is the outlook of the situation as the baby-boom generation enters senior citizen territory?

Since 2012, we have seen a dramatic increase in the proportion of seniors who are food insecure with an especially large increase due to the Great Recession; an increase that has not yet dissipated. In terms of the number of seniors who are food insecure, we’ve seen even a more dramatic increase because of the increase in the total number of seniors in the United States.

What can be done to solve the problem? Should the federal government look for a solution, or is it best handled at a local level?

It’s going to take a combination of both. SNAP is a fantastic program that has been proven effective in study after study, so any comprehensive effort to alleviate food insecurity in the United States has to involve SNAP. Then there are lots of neat local initiatives. Feeding America, the umbrella organization for all food banks in the United States, has several initiatives that entail new ways to reach seniors. This is especially important because even though poverty is a key determinant of food insecurity, two-thirds of food-insecure seniors have incomes above the poverty line. In these cases, SNAP won’t reach them, but they still need assistance. This really points to the key role of our local food banks, including the Eastern Illinois Food Bank here in Central Illinois.