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1 in 14 Seniors Faces Food Insecurity. We Need to Help Them

Columns 2023-06-09, 10:59pm


Danielle Nierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg

I want to share a story from someone in Food Tank’s network.

She is someone from the United States who receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and as a senior, getting groceries is not always easy.

She first emailed me about a year ago, and we’ve been discussing an interesting question: What if it were possible for country’s elders, especially those using SNAP benefits, to simply call grocery stores to place orders that could then be delivered?

For many seniors, leaving home to go to the grocery store can be challenging. And even though many have smartphones with internet access—which not every senior does—grocery-ordering apps and websites can feel impersonal and difficult to navigate.

"I would like to see this done nationwide," she wrote to me. "It will help every senior who can not get out of their [apartment as] well."

I think her question strikes me for a couple reasons: It speaks to how impersonal our food system has become. Direct connections with real people, even over the phone, can be important—especially when we’re talking about food choice, an important part of feeling independent, empowered, and dignified.

But also, her question brings up another sobering point: When we talk about food security, we cannot keep leaving our elders behind.

According to Feeding America, 5.5 million seniors 60 and older in the U.S. were food insecure in 2021—that’s 1 in every 14. The proportion is even higher for adults aged 50–59. And communities of color are disproportionately impacted: Black seniors are almost 4 times more likely and Latinx seniors are about 3 times more likely to experience food insecurity compared to white seniors.

And at the same time, older adults are less likely to enroll in SNAP benefits. Only about 48 percent of eligible seniors participate, compared to 86 percent of other eligible adults.

The reasons for the lower participation rate are largely similar to the challenges seniors face getting groceries in general: mobility, technology use, misunderstandings about the program.

In fact, until recently, many stores didn’t even accept SNAP benefits for online shoppers. This changed during the pandemic—now, stores like Walmart, Wegmans, Amazon, Publix, Kroger, and Target do accept SNAP benefits online. But when Congress decided to end the emergency SNAP allotments that boosted benefits during the pandemic, many seniors saw their benefits shrink dramatically. Some adults saw SNAP fall from US$281 to just US$23 per month, per the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

We need to help seniors be more food-secure—and the current Farm Bill season is the perfect time to be talking about it.

The Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) is a great place to start. It’s a program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help low-income seniors access local produce at farmers markets, roadside stands, or CSAs. As of 2020, 55 agencies across U.S. states, territories, and Native nations received SFMNP grants. As our friends at Wholesome Wave pointed out, we need to focus on expanding this program in an equitable way.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also runs the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which sends low-income seniors a monthly grocery box containing US$50 worth of commodity foods. Currently, according to Feeding America, the program is limited in its geographic scope and has a significant waiting list—so this is another space desperately in need of resources and investment.

Nonprofits are helping fill some of these gaps. Organizations like Meals on Wheels and AARP Foundation nationwide or God’s Love We Deliver in the New York/New Jersey area are delivering meals to homebound or ill seniors or helping them apply for SNAP.

And just a few days ago—on June 1—U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced the Senior Hunger Prevention Act, to support older adults experiencing food insecurity. The legislation is co-led by U.S. Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman. This act would increase monthly SNAP benefits for seniors, streamline the application process, support outreach efforts to help folks enroll, and expand SNAP food delivery options.

This legislation is crucial toward helping seniors who are eligible for or already receive SNAP but have limited mobility to go to the store or limited ability to place online orders—a group of people who have been left behind by the food system, as the Food Tank member and I were discussing via email.

We talk a lot about childhood hunger and nutrition, but the food movement admittedly doesn't talk enough about how our food system can be better for seniors.

American society is not good at honoring our elders—and even economically, these folks have been paying into social programs like SNAP for decades. We simply must take better care of everyone in our society, especially older people.

And this means being creative. Technological solutions are a start, but accessibility is paramount. How can we help seniors feel empowered to access the food they want and need? How can we build more meaningful and personal relationships? How can we support policies like the Senior Hunger Prevention Act?

This week on the Food Talk podcast, we talked to experts about the Farm Bill, which is one of the most important pieces of legislation that governs U.S. food policy. Give the episode a listen HERE to learn more about it, and let’s talk about how the Farm Bill can keep seniors in mind, too.

I appreciate the person in Food Tank’s network who reached out to me to talk about this issue, and yes—I legitimately try to read and respond to every email you all send me.

Let’s continue to chat at about the aspects of the food system you care deeply about, and how a more sustainable and equitable food system would affect your day-to-day life. I know it would for me.

(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank. She can be contacted at