The downturn made things even worse. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2007, only 11 percent of households were struggling to put food on the table. In 2008, that number jumped to 14.6 percent and edged up again to 14.7 percent last year — the highest number ever recorded since surveys began in 1995.
One encouraging sign emerged from the 2009 numbers, released Nov. 15. Reports of hunger are down slightly among older Americans, though analysts say that drop may be simply because more people are taking advantage of emergency food aid.
Indeed, other surveys confirm that a growing numbers of older Americans are lining up at soup kitchens and food banks. The nonprofit group Feeding America, which represents a network of more than 200 food banks around the country, has seen a 46 percent increase in the number of low-income people seeking emergency food assistance since 2005. About 8 percent of the people in line are 65 and older, a total of almost 3 million people.
The Future of Hunger
In some parts of the country, the situation is even worse. "We're seeing more and more seniors in really dire straits," says Aine Duggan, vice president for government relations, policy and research at the Food Bank for New York City.
One in six people 65-plus in New York City receives food from soup kitchens and food pantries. More than one in three reported having trouble affording food in 2009, a 65 percent increase since 2003.
Duggan worries that their ranks are likely to increase. "We've seen a big jump in the percentage of people 50 to 64 who say they are having difficulty affording food. These are mostly working people who are struggling. If they're having trouble now, what will it be like after they retire?"
According to James F. Ziliak, a researcher at the University of Kentucky's Center for Poverty Research, the people most at risk of going hungry today are those ages 60 to 64. "That was a big surprise," says Ziliak, who co-authored the 2008 report about hunger. Many of those people lost jobs during the downturn, haven't been able to find work and don't yet qualify for Social Security or other benefits, he speculates.
The consequences far exceed hunger pangs.
"Older people who can't afford adequate food are at much higher risk of falling short on crucial nutrients," says Jung Sun Lee, an assistant professor