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Hunger in America Today

The challenge of having enough to eat intensifies in these hard economic times

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Senior food give away. Dallas, TX. — Christopher Anderson/ Magnum

The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression may have bottomed out, but many people still struggle through the slow and spotty recovery. The hardest hit face an appalling prospect: going hungry because they don't have enough money to buy food.

 

Even before the downturn, more than 5 million Americans age 60-plus worried about being able to put food on the table, according to a sweeping 2008 report called The Causes, Consequences, and Future of Senior Hunger in America, funded by Meals on Wheels. Examining census data from 2000 through 2005, the report found that more than 750,000 seniors skipped meals or went without eating for an entire day because they couldn't afford food.

of gerontology at the University of Georgia who is studying hunger among older people in the state. "That puts them at greater risk of chronic illnesses related to diet, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease."

Squeezed by rising health care costs and living expenses, more and more people are forced to choose between paying for medications and putting food on the table. A 2010 study by Lee and her colleagues found that people struggling to eat are almost three times more likely to skip pills, delay refilling prescriptions or stop taking a medication entirely.

Small wonder, then, that older Americans faced with hunger are more likely to report poor health than those with enough to eat. They're also more likely to be hospitalized and to have longer hospital stays.

How Can It Happen Here?

Poverty is the leading cause of hunger, of course. Living alone is another risk factor.

Yet even when help is available, many older Americans don't take advantage. Demand for food stamps, for example, now part of a program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), soared as the economy soured. In August 2010, the last month for which statistics are available, 42.3 million Americans received SNAP benefits. That's the highest ever recorded and 5 million more than just one year before.

Surveys show that about 67 percent of households eligible for SNAP benefits currently receive them. In contrast, only about one in three eligible older people takes advantage of the program.

"The problem of hunger here isn't a shortage of food, like it is in developing countries," Lee says. "In a way it's more complex. The more we understand why it occurs, the better able we'll be to eliminate it."

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