The economy has come a long way since the depths of the Great Recession 10 years ago. But for senior Americans in particular, the economy continues to present challenges, not the least of which is hunger.
As head of the Vermont Foodbank, John Sayles is on the front lines in the war against hunger in this state. What Sayles has witnessed is an increase in what’s called the “food insecurity” among seniors and older adults. He said that despite an improving economy, both hunger and a lack of proper nutrition are “creeping up the income ladder.”
He said people who aren’t eligible for federal assistance programs like 3SquaresVT or other programs are being squeezed as their incomes fail to keep pace with the cost of living.
“More working families and older adults are going to food shelves,” Sayles said. “It doesn’t make sense where the unemployment rate is but what we’re seeing is more and more employed people, including some older adults, needing food assistance.”
According to the recently released study, "The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2016," 4.9 million people age 60 or older (7.7 percent of the demographic) were food insecure in 2016. In Vermont, the rate is 6.3 percent.
Although seniors with the lowest incomes are most at risk, about two-thirds of food-insecure seniors have income above the federal poverty line and don’t qualify for federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).
Sayles said what often happens is when faced with a choice of paying the rent or fuel bill, someone is more likely to cut back on their food budget.
“You can always eat less,” he said.
Although many seniors have incomes above the federal poverty level, Sayles said many other seniors who are eligible for federal food assistance programs haven’t signed up.
“We’re pretty aggressive about working with older adults and doing outreach and trying to let people know when they are eligible for 3SquaresVT and help them sign up,” he said, adding that Vermont does better than the country as a whole because the state has a “really robust network through the area Agencies on Aging and we have a great network of senior centers even in some of our very rural areas.”
Sayles added, however, the number of food insecure Vermonters is actually higher than the 6.3 percent cited in the national survey, which doesn’t capture everyone who is food insecure.
“The number of people who actually go to food shelves and meal sites is actually higher than the food insecurity number,” he said.
Jamie Bedard, executive director of Just Basics, said there has been a significant increase in the number of people who rely on the Montpelier Food Pantry. Anecdotally, while seniors continue to represent a large percentage of those who use the food shelf, Bedard said seniors are often reluctant to ask for help.
“We actually have a little bit of a harder time getting seniors to come in and access our services,” she said.
Bedard said two years ago 500 people used the food shelf. This year Just Basics food pantry is on track to serve 1,500 individuals.
An improved economy has little if any bearing on seniors who are retired and may also be disabled.
Bedard said seniors on a fixed income face increased expenses, including higher rent and food costs.
“It’s just costing more to live,” she said. “So more and more of your income is going toward other things.”
At the Rutland Community Cupboard, between 30 and 40 percent of the 1,100 families who use the food shelf each month are seniors, said Executive Director Dan Warnecke.
“The amount of people who come through who are retired and don’t work anymore are seniors in Rutland (and) it’s pretty high,” he said.
Warnecke said the Vermont Foodbank is a big help, educating seniors on nutrition and applying for 3SquaresVT.
“There’s a lot of things the Vermont Foodbank does through us,” he said. “They’ll actually come here and sit down and talk to people.”
The Rutland Community Cupboard distributes between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds of food each month with half of that coming from the Vermont Foodbank. The remainder is donated as well as food that’s purchased by his organization, Warnecke said
Like Bedard, he said it’s a bit more difficult to convince seniors it’s OK to ask for help.
While the number of people who go hungry is a serious concern, Sayles said what’s happening at the national level is making matters worse.
He said there are potential cuts aimed at programs including Meals on Wheels. He said one proposal in the House would drastically cut the number of meals.
“It’s dramatic and draconian,” he said.
Sayles said another plan would increase the work requirement to qualify for food assistance from 50 to 60 years old.
Through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, the Vermont Foodbank provides nearly 2,400 Vermonters over the age of 60 with boxes of nutritious food.
The latest national report on food insecurity also found:
— Seniors who reported a disability were disproportionately affected, with 24 percent reporting food insecurity.
— Senior food insecurity rates range from 3.4 percent in North Dakota to 14.1 percent in Louisiana.
— Seniors living in the South are more likely to experience food insecurity than seniors living in other parts of the country.
“The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2016” was produced by Feeding America in partnership with National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.
The Vermont Foodbank supports a network of 215 food shelves, meal sites, senior centers and after-school programs, as well as providing assistance to families, children, older adults and individuals at schools and hospitals. In 2017, the Vermont Foodbank distributed nearly 12 million pounds of food to 153,100 Vermonters.